The Tobago Business Chamber is urging the Government to be transparent in executing its $50 million bailout plan to assist struggling hoteliers and tourism-related businesses on the island.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert announced the initiative on Monday during the budget presentation in the House of Representatives. He said it will be implemented to provide much-needed working capital for those in the sector, who have been severely affected by the pandemic.
Imbert said the programme, titled Tobago Hotel and Tourism Support, will be managed by the Tobago House of assembly and Evolving Tecknologies and Enterprise Development Ltd (EtecK). Both entities will screen applications and assist the THA in designing and administering the programme.
On Wednesday, the chamber’s chairman Martin George said while the association is grateful for the Government’s $50 million investment, it noted EtecK is one of the facilitating agencies in the exercise.
“EtecK is a significant interested party in the operation of the Magdalena Grand (Beach & Golf Resort). So, we just trust that there is no conflict of interest that arises there or no undue favouring of Magdalena in that regard,” he said in a WhatsApp voice note.
George called for full transparency in the initiative.
“We have no difficulty with calling upon the Government and asking them to list the names of all of the hoteliers, entities, guesthouses and owners who would have gotten the grants so that there is that clarity for the public. Because at the end of the day, we need to know where the money is actually going rather than just hearing it in the budget speech.”
He said the chamber also believes too much of the island’s allocation is devoted to recurrent expenditure. Tobago received $2.357 billion in the budget. Of the sum, $2.075 billion has been allocated for recurrent expenditure while $264 million was set aside for capital expenditure.
George noted 88 per cent of Tobago’s allocation has been earmarked for expenses.
“Now, we have said repeatedly that we cannot have this large percentage of your budget devoted to recurrent expenditure. We have said repeatedly that we would like more focus on capital investment and infrastructural development. This is not really the focus or emphasis of this budget as regards Tobago.
“Eighty-eight per cent is still going towards your recurrent expenditure. That means you are paying wages, salaries, rentals, supplies and that is just money going out. Nothing is being ploughed back in. So, from a business perspective, it is a disaster in that regard because it’s not sustainable in the long-term economic future.”
George said in future budgets, greater emphasis must be placed on capital investment in Tobago.
“We would like to see that in the future that there be better emphasis on putting some capital investment plans in place and ploughing money there. We would like to see greater focus on the infrastructural development to create and facilitate the means of production so that we, in Tobago, would be able to have an enabling environment for business so that we can see a brighter future for tomorrow.”
George also repeated the chamber’s call for a repeal of the Foreign Investment Act and for the Government to consider making Tobago a VAT-free zone.
“This is going to benefit the average Tobagonian. It means that your cost of living will go down by 12. 5 per cent immediately. So, it is not just a question of moving it from basic foodstuff like ketchup. We want it removed entirely.
“So, in other words, it will be a lot easier for Tobagonians to make ends meet on a daily basis. It is also going to benefit Trinbagonians generally because you will have many Trinidadians who will now want to come and retire in Tobago.”