STEPHON NICHOLAS & COREY CONNELLY
Tobago tour operators are fearing for the future of the tourism industry after the abrupt closure of the Asa Wright Nature Centre eco-lodge in Trinidad.
In a statement on January 18, the centre announced that with the continued closure of the borders and the limited physical movement as a result of covid19, its management decided to terminate its eco-lodge business.
Asa Wright Nature Centre, at Spring Hill Estate, Arima, comprises an eco-lodge and hotel. It is a world-renowned site, particularly of interest to nature seekers and bird watchers.
The closure of the eco-lodge has put some 42 employees on the breadline.
Jason Radix, owner of Eureka Natural History Tours, said he is “heartbroken, confused and concerned” for his business and Asa Wright Centre.
Radix said his small tour guide business, which he established in January 2015, has a symbiotic relationship with Asa Wright. He said Tobago hotels and other businesses benefit from that relationship.
He told Newsday, “The same clients that go to Asa Wright, they often come on a package that includes a week in Trinidad, staying at Asa Wright and going to places like Nariva and Caroni Swamp, Aripo, Arena, all the main sites where you could see birds. So they will spend a week in Trinidad and then come for a few days in Tobago.”
Radix, a former marketing manager at Asa Wright, said the clients stay at hotels on the island to visit the Main Ridge, the Wetlands and Little Tobago to view the birds and other wildlife.
“So I would handle the Tobago part of it – the tours and transfers.”
The young businessman said clients usually secure packages through US travel agent Caligo Ventures.
He said: “So I am concerned because a main part of the attraction for these eco and bird-watching visitors is Asa Wright itself. Asa Wright is not just the accommodation. It is the attraction.
“There are many layers to Asa Wright’s importance and I benefit from that as a former employee and now as an independent tour guide and operator in Tobago.”
Radix, who worked at the centre from 1991-2010, said he is also deeply concerned about the impact of the closure of the eco-lodge on other Tobago entrepreneurs.
“I often say I am just one spoke in the wheel, because people not just booking a room when they come on holiday. They come to explore and enjoy the culture. And the tours I offer is just one part of that.
"So the accommodation providers, the restaurateurs, the other boat operators that we use within the experience, they are also going to be impacted by this.”
Radix said approximately 90 per cent of his business is sourced directly from Caligo.
He said people would book a year in advance because it is a seasonal industry.
“So you have people booking for the winter months: November to April, those are the peak months.”
Radix added: “It is the same for all different niches of tourism. Whether you’re a tour guide or a hotel or restaurant. there is a big push factor because people are trying to get away from the cold.”
He said the news of the closure will also affect Caligo and other marketing agents because they would have organised post-covid19 campaigns for whenever the borders are reopened.
“So I am going to be crippled by this.”
Radix said he heard the centre’s chairman and another member talking on television about how difficult it was to close the eco-lodge.
He said he has difficulty accepting that statement.
“That is one of the parts of the confusion that I still have a challenge with because I, like everybody else, have been waiting until the borders reopen.”
The businessman said although his operating expenses may not be the same as Asa Wright, they have still been significantly reduced.
“So there are certain logical things that I have been asking myself that hasn’t been answered yet.”
He said Asa Wright has been in existence since 1967.
“It has had over 55 years of history and success. And while the covid pandemic impacted everybody, they would have been operating at a reduced cost and suddenly the centre has no choice but to shut its doors permanently.”
Describing it as “reputable and historic,” Radix regarded the centre as a “unique commodity.”
“For it to fail now is never something that I could see this pandemic leading to.”
GOVERNMENT SHOULD STEP IN
Tour operator Teija De Silva believes the Government or private sector should step in to save the eco-lodge.
"It's a shame if the Government doesn't go in and help. It's not a huge operation. Whether it's the private sector or Government.
De Silva, who usually attracts clients from Nordic countries, said the Asa Wright Nature Centre was a huge hit.
"For 15 years I did a tour to Asa Wright every Friday from Tobago and it was extremely well booked and highly appreciated. We had a combo with Asa Wright, then lunch there, then Port of Spain and then Caroni (Bird Sanctuary) with Winston Nanan. That was the biggest hit of the vacation, that and the rainforest in Tobago.
"We left on the first flight (from Tobago) and came home on the last, and I must say, that was a highly appreciated tour. Sometimes I had about 40 people on that tour."
De Silva said alternative attractions could be offered but would not be as enticing.
"The oil (bird) cave in Asa Wright is the easiest accessible in the world. Only people who stayed a minimum three nights are allowed to do that night tour. This Swedish guy (Jan Lindblad) wrote a book (Journey to Red Birds) about it.
"Of course you can find alternatives, other estates, but Asa Wright was unique, from the history and the tour guides, and everybody employed are from the area. It's ordinary people who were trained and people appreciate that."
De Silva, honorary consul for the Kingdom of Sweden, said diplomats and ambassadors from all over the world have enjoyed tours to Asa Wright Nature Centre.
"It makes me very sad. The people I have taken there are really enthusiastic. People from all over the world come to Trinidad to study birds. People from Argentina, Germany, wherever, are like in heaven when they are up there."