Businessmen: Tobago seriously affected by absence of Cabo Star

Customs officers board the Emprendedora after it docked at the Port of Spain harbour on Saturday. The vessel will be used to take cargo to Tobago as repairs are done to the Cabo Star.  - Jeff K. Mayers
Customs officers board the Emprendedora after it docked at the Port of Spain harbour on Saturday. The vessel will be used to take cargo to Tobago as repairs are done to the Cabo Star. - Jeff K. Mayers

TOBAGO entrepreneurs say their businesses have been gravely affected by the shutdown of the MV Cabo Star cargo vessel.

And they fear the situation could get worse the longer the vessel is out of commission.

The Cabo Star is being repaired after a fire broke out onboard on August 23. Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan said the vessel will be back in operation by Septemer 17.

During a news conference on Thursday, Port Authority of TT (PATT) chairman Lyle Alexander said another cargo vessel has been retained to sail the seabridge until repairs to the Cabo Star are complete. He added the vessel should be in operation sometime next week.

In the meantime, Alexander said trucks carrying cargo to Tobago will be accommodated on the passenger ferries.

He said truckers must be mindful of the 7,000-kilogramme weight restriction for vehicles.

Kurt Warner, managing director of the Penny Savers Supermarket chain, claimed every business on the island has been affected by the absence of the Cabo Star.

“It would affect some greater than some, but all businesses in Tobago are affected by that boat situation currently. That is the truth behind it,” he told Newsday on Friday.

Referring specifically to Penny Savers, which has three outlets, Warner said there continues to be shortages of various staple commodities.

“Your basic everyday items – rice, flour, sugar. Bread was highlighted as a big thing the other day. Then there are meats, cold cuts, chicken, specialty meats – all those things are affected...because the supply that we would normally get...on a weekly basis from our suppliers, that has now cut down to once every two weeks because of the challenges to now have a vehicle to meet the requirements of the load that these two boats (APT James and Buccoo Reef) could take. So that is the challenge.”

Warner said if a supplier has three trucks with goods, The port may not necessarily take his three trucks, but may ration it.”

While he welcomes the news that a cargo vessel has been sourced to service the seabridge, Warner said it may not begin sailing yet.

“I am told they have to go through the legalities of being able to ship goods between Trinidad and Tobago, which could take a few days.”

He is adopting a wait-and-see approach.

“Outside of getting a new vessel, there is absolutely nothing else we can do. There is no boat that is going to pop out of the sky and we could just use it. So it is a wait-and-see.”

Richard Balsingh, owner of Richard’s Hardware & Supplies, Scarborough, said the absence of the Cabo Star has been bad for business.

“There have been shortages on all building materials that come from Trinidad – blocks, sand, cement, lumber, steel.”

Balsingh also complained about the weight restrictions for suppliers.

The shortages the businessmen mentioned were not visible to the average customer, however.

When Newsday visited Penny Savers supermarket, Wilson Road, Carnbee, on Friday, there were no empty shelves, though the Kiss sliced bread was down to just a few loaves.

A worker was seen stocking packages of grapes and apples.

A shopper told Newsday she had noticed the prices on several items had gone up.

“But it was not what I was expecting, based on how some businessmen said the situation was in terms of shortages. It was nothing like that, is just the bread shelf, because Kiss coming from Trinidad.”

But the woman said she had seen shortages at the Scarborough market.

“The market does not have as much foodstuff as you would normally see, because there is a boy I would buy dasheen bush and bhaji from, but last week and this week, he did not have any at all.

“You seeing little differences in the market. The amount of things people normally have, you not seeing that, because plenty of the goods coming from Trinidad.”

Tobago Business Chamber chairman Martin George wondered if the businessmen’s claims about a looming food shortage were legitimate.

“One has to question, ‘Where are the figures? What are the numbers? Where is the raw, empirical data to show or justify the claims of impending disaster?'” he asked on Friday.

“Has any businessman shown their records, books and documents to show that there is this mass crisis? Have there been long lines for bread, rice, flour, sugar and other staples, as we have seen in countries where there are real crises?”

George said if there is a food shortage, “Then, in the normal course of things, many of the smaller trucks are the ones which carry foodstuffs up to Tobago. You can’t tell me that it is only on a ten-tonne truck or cargo trailer which can carry bags of sugar and rice and flour to Tobago.”

He added, “If people complain about certain building materials, then one could understand that I-beams, large concrete structures, large lengths of steel, of several pallets of cement or those large bags of sand can’t go to Tobago.

“But don’t tell me you can’t transport food, especially when the PATT and the Inter-Island ferries have made accommodation to accept more than their usual complement of small trucks to assist.”

George said, however, the PATT and the TT Inter-Island Transportation Company Ltd, must take responsibility for the development.

“It reinforces the point that there is indeed need to have a second cargo vessel just like the Cabo Star so that we would avoid these crises.”

He said Tobago must also take some blame.

“Why are you so dependent on food stock every day coming from Trinidad and elsewhere? What are you planting, growing and producing?”

George recalled before Hurricane Flora hit the island in 1963, Tobago used to provide food to Trinidad.

“What has happened to those glory days of massive planting and growing of food in Tobago and even exporting food to Trinidad?”

Referring to the upcoming Blue Food Festival on October 15, he said some participants told him they had to source their foodstock from Trinidad.

“So, is it really still a Tobago Blue Food Festival, if Tobagonians are hardly growing any of the food that is showcased there?

“Let Tobago use this as a wake-up call so that while we ask PATT to do better, we also will look around as to where we can begin doing better for ourselves.”

In Parliament on Friday, Sinanan apologised to Tobagonians for the inconvenience caused by the absence of the Cabo Star.

He was responding to a question from Couva South MP Rudranath Indarsingh about the costs of repairing the Cabo Star and procuring another vessel to service the seabridge.

On Thursday, THA Minority Leader Kelvon Morris appealed to the PATT board to take all necessary steps to bring an “immediate and swift resolution” to the “cargo crisis” confronting Tobagonians.

Morris, in a statement from his office, said the response of the Inter-Island Transportation Company at Thursday’s press conference was “as disappointing as it is demoralising and disrespectful to all Tobagonians.

“I was left flabbergasted at the lacklustre approach of the management to a crisis that has the potential to literally cripple the entire island."

He said they seemed to lack the sense of urgency, empathy and care to articulate a clear plan to bring about a swift solution and relieve those affected.

The Darrel Spring/Whim assemblyman urged PATT’s line minister to hold the board and management accountable and put the relevant contingency systems and plans in place reduce the chance of such a crisis recurring.

“We can do better and we must do better for and by the people of TT.”


"Businessmen: Tobago seriously affected by absence of Cabo Star"

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