It is no secret that the tourism and hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit in the covid19 pandemic. With the world shuttering itself indoors over the past two years, the industry which depended heavily on the movement and gathering of people suffered tremendously.
But as vaccinations and public health measures slowed the spread of the virus, the tourism and hotel industry is beginning to recover worldwide.
The same could be said for Tobago, with occupancy levels expected to hit 95 per cent in October thanks in no small part to the upcoming carnival, and occupancy, in general, heading beyond 50 per cent for the rest of the year.
However, there are still hurdles that the tourism industry must overcome. With inflation and price volatility, debt accrued during the lockdown and concerns over global economic shocks, many are calling for support and strategy out of the THA to guide businesses to recovery.
Winston Pereira, second-generation owner of Miller’s Guest House on Buccoo Bay Road, is excited for the rest of the year starting with the carnival on October 28 and the many pre-events.
“As soon as everything was finalised and the date was announced people flocked to the hotels and guest houses,” he said. “Considering from where we were, things have been really good. We have had more than 50 per cent occupancy in June which is good, especially during a slow period such as June and July.
Periera said there have been increases across the board as compared to the last two years when occupancy and revenue were almost at zero. He said domestically, interest and occupancy remained consistent, but he was looking forward to the winter months – December-April – when foreigners would visit the island.
“There is definitely going to be a credit crunch because of the energy issues, but if foreigners have an opportunity to escape and avoid that day-to-day conundrum of worrying about heat, I think they would take it and there would be a good turnout.”
Tobago Hoteliers Association vice president Carol-Ann Birchwood-James said occupancy during the July/August holiday was at a high and expected momentum as the year progresses. She added that British Airways’ flights to Tobago have remained consistent.
While there were many factors contributing to the turnaround, the THA and Central Government have assisted the industry, especially during the shut-down periods. In last year’s budget, financial assistance was provided for guest houses and hotels to upgrade under the Tourism Accommodation Upgrade Programme which, according to Birchwood-James, refunded hoteliers 50 per cent of the costs of refurbishing hotel rooms and accommodation, improving the room stock. The opening of Comfort Inn and Suites, in August, which provided 74 rooms – 20 of which are suites, added to this.
Another $50 million was also allocated for the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Support programme which was managed by the THA and eTeck and aimed to provide working capital to hoteliers and tourism stakeholders.
Although there has been some turnaround, the hotel and tourism industries have a long way to go to fully recover.
Periera said while revenue seems to be coming in, he cannot think about profits. His main concern is clearing his debts.
“Taxes didn’t let up, utilities didn’t let up. There are many hotels that accrued a certain amount of debt. Before we could talk profits we would have to clear that up,” he said.
He added that while many were happy for the grants, prices continue to rise, increasing the cost of doing business for hotels.
“We are a small property, we are not the Hyatt. So coming out of the pandemic some hotels would be in a better position than others.”
Bills are not the only issues. The THA and other bodies called for increased traffic on the air bridge. Despite Caribbean Airlines increasing the number of flights to 24 daily, some want a 24-hour service. Currently the ANR International Airport opens from 6 am to 10 pm daily, but Chief Secretary Farley Augustine said the THA is willing to cover the additional $5.6 million needed annually to keep the airport open until 2 am.
Caribbean Airlines has said operations between the islands have been characterised by consistent losses, amounting to millions. According to earlier reports, flights between Trinidad and Tobago incur losses of at least $40,800, even if filled.
However, British Airways, which resumed flights to Tobago in January, has helped to reverse the trend of a lack of international flights many agree that for its tourism industry to flourish, transport must operate at its optimum.
More than occupancy, financial support from government and consistent traffic to the island, TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce Tobago Division head Dianne Haddad said the tourism industry and its economy would benefit from proper direction from the THA.
“We are nine months into a new government body and there is not meaningful communication between the THA and shareholders,” Haddad said.
“There has been no activity to say that the THA has done anything meaningful.”
She said the island is in need of some form of direction from the THA which at the moment is embroiled in a standoff between Augustine, and the Deputy Chief Secretary, Watson Duke over funding for a folk performing company's trip to the US.
“It is either there is some internal conflict, some of which has been aired out in the public space, there is some level of sabotage to make it look like the THA is not doing anything meaningful, or they are not doing anything,” she said.
She hoped for a successful carnival.
“We will have to wait and see if the parties involved could deliver on Tobago carnival without the 'bacchanal' or 'canboulay.'”
The THA budget statement for 2023, presented in June, proposed an estimated $29 million in projects for the revitalisation of the tourism sector: the construction of cruise ship berths – $10 million; a beach facility in Store Bay; infrastructure works on Pigeon Point – $5 million, the restoration of historical sites – t $3 million, and operations in the Tobago Tourism Agency – $5 million.
“We must rebuild our tourism sector and regain lost momentum,” Augustine said in June.
The THA hopes to address the shortfall in room stock with estimates that Tobago needs at least 5,000 rooms. The Rocky Point hotel development is expected to make a dent in the shortfall and provide more than 1,000 jobs during construction, and close to 425 full-time jobs upon commissioning and full operation.
Augustine also said a cross-sectoral committee would be set to advise on tourism development that is outside the duties and responsibilities of the Division of Tourism in Tobago.
He said other initiatives include a marketing campaign to encourage more arrivals, partnership with tourism stakeholders to turn Tobago into a warm and enjoyable place for visitors with a number of green spaces. Also, public and community drives to inform and educate Tobagonians on the opportunities available in the industry, provision of financial and technical resources to enable the digitisation of bookings and property management through the Tobago Tourism Agency.