Tobago businesses call for new attractions, better deals – 'Reboot tourism sector'

FUN IN THE SUN: People enjoying themselves at Pigeon Point beach, Tobago. - File photo
FUN IN THE SUN: People enjoying themselves at Pigeon Point beach, Tobago. - File photo


Nearly two months after an oil spill from a capsized boat that began on February 7, approximately 200 meters off the Cove Eco-Industrial Park’s coast, Tobago Business Day tried to gauge its economic impact on the island’s tourism industry.

While business owners say the oil spill has not affected the number of people visiting Tobago for vacation, they are calling for the island’s tourism sector to be revamped.

Several business owners told Business Day that adding new attractions and more cost-effective vacation packages will attract more tourists.

Asked about the impact of the spill on his business, Benson Hanomansingh, owner of Traditions Bar and Grill, clarified that he primarily serves a local clientele. “We have a lot of locals visiting us and they keep coming back. The foreigners give us the extras,” he said.

Having been open for 12 years, Traditions Bar and Grill, in Pigeon Point, is a popular destination for tourists.

On the industry’s overall condition and suggestions for Tobago’s improvement, Hanomansingh commented, “The tourism industry can bring tourists initially, but it’s up to stakeholders to ensure they return. If you build it, they will come.”

When asked about the influence of crime on visitor numbers, Hanomansingh noted, “Crime is everywhere, not just in Trinidad and Tobago.”

During brief discussions with tourists, predominantly Trinidadians spending their Easter vacation on the island, it was conveyed that the oil spill hadn’t deterred their decision to visit Tobago.

An owner offering beach chair, tent, and hut rentals highlighted an uptick in local visitors for Easter.

He said his business remains unaffected by the oil spill or issues with the Cabo Star ferry, and Trinidadians continue to flock to Tobago, attracted by its affordability.

Asked about potential improvements to the industry, he said long-standing foreign visitors, with over two decades of visits, adore Tobago but express a desire for novelty.

Visitors board the Coral Princess Tours, to head out to the Nylon Pool and Buccoo Reef from Store Bay. - File photo

“They want to experience something new. They cherish our culture, but we need fresh and inventive ways to showcase it to them.”

21 Plantations Paradise is a short-term vacation home rental business in the Tobago Plantations, which sells a luxury getaway experience.

Asked about the annual tourist influx, the owner explained, “That is a very difficult question to answer, as the numbers from the post-covid era are still low, as both locals and foreigners are carefully assessing how to spend. But the general peak periods of Christmas, Carnival, Easter, and the July-August period still exist.”

For the entire Easter period, from March 22-April 10, 21 Plantations Paradise is fully booked.

The owner said, “Businesses similar to ours located along the western part of the island mainly have visitors from Trinidad, who visit mostly on the weekends. While the short-term vacation businesses located in the eastern part of the island mainly have foreign visitors who come to enjoy the more eco-friendly, wellness-focused, country-setting experiences that they offer, they tend to visit for more than one week at a time.”

On the oil spill and its impact on visitors, the owner said, “The vacationer who still chooses to visit Tobago is not deterred by the recent oil-spill issue.

A cruise ship docks at the Scarborough port on February 11 as work is under way nearby to contain and clean up an oil spill which has affected the coastline. - Photo by Jaydn Sebro

“In fact, the authorities have effectively managed the oil-spill situation with quick clean-up in the few affected areas. They have ensured that Tobago remains the unspoilt paradise that it has always been.”

Asked if crime is a deterrent, he said, “Crime exists all over the world. Tobago in particular has retained its image of being relatively crime-free as compared to Trinidad. So in that respect, crime appears to be no deterrent to visit Tobago.”

Reflecting on the state of the industry, the owner said, “I believe that the hotel and vacation home industry has effectively defined their product offerings, from the full all-inclusive luxury experience to the rustic eco-friendly village-life experience, with each type of business having their peak and off-peak seasons.

“In spite of this, the state of the industry is still fragile, as not only has the vacationing customer become more discerning on how they spend, but there has been a decrease in the number of annual festivals and events on the island, which decreases the incentive to come to Tobago.”

Asked about factors attracting tourists and potential deterrents, he said, “I believe tourists are attracted to the most cost-effective vacation package that meets their needs. So I believe tourists are not pushed away from visiting Tobago; they may instead choose to visit other destinations based on what is being offered, and the cost.

“What is needed for the Tobago vacation industry is for members to support each other, to continuously re-assess their experience-products, make improvements and cut costs to maximise tourist uptake.”

Business Day also contacted Tobago economist Dr Vanus James, who provided insights on the economic repercussions of the oil spill.

Tobago economist Dr Vanus James - File photo

James emphasised the lack of data on the technical impact of the spill, hindering the ability to estimate its economic consequences accurately.

Without understanding the extent of damage to the coastline and marine resources like shellfish and fish habitats, it’s challenging to gauge the economic losses. However, while acknowledging uncertainties, he mentioned insights from a study he chaired on Tobago’s fisheries. It indicated that fisherfolk in Tobago primarily fish farther from the shore, potentially avoiding direct contamination from the spill.

The overturned Gulfstream barge 200m off Cove, Tobago. - Photo by Jaydn Sebro

However, concerns about consumer perceptions affecting fish demand persist, although precise estimates are pending further research.

As for the spill’s impact on tourism, James pointed out that major tourism beaches in Tobago, on the Caribbean side of the island, remained unaffected.

“None of our prime tourism beaches have been affected, including Store Bay, Pigeon Point, Englishman’s Bay etc,” he said.

Consequently, he said domestic tourism from Trinidad is unlikely to suffer significantly, though there may be concerns about the international tourism market.

On the Cabo Star ferry, James suggested while disruptions might occur, the overall impact on Tobago’s tourism sector could be mitigated.

“I don’t think our tourism product is dramatically affected by what is happening with Cabo Star other than in terms of the routine expectations. People tend to come from Trinidad with stuff (groceries, etc). Any expectation of shortages wouldn’t stop people from coming, it would just moderate the demand for products in our supermarkets.

“If a boat doesn’t work for a week, there will be reserves on the island and so on.”

James highlighted Tobago’s contrasting economic trajectory compared to Trinidad’s postcovid recovery. While Trinidad experienced substantial economic rebound, Tobago faced economic decline, particularly in sectors like construction and agriculture.

“We got a substantial rebound in the national economy, but in the Tobago economy, it has been the opposite of that. The economy rebounded in 2021 by a substantial amount. However, in 2022, the economy declined overall by two per cent and in some sectors, like construction, agriculture and so on – a virtual collapse – 35 per cent, 38 per cent decline in those sectors. Banking declined by 2.7 per cent, although the credit unions picked up some of that slack by growing at about 7.8 per cent.

“So there has been a collapse of the economy in Tobago in 2022.”

This decline extended into 2023, leading to the emigration of skilled workers and exacerbating Tobago’s economic challenges.

He also underscored Tobago’s increasing dependence on Trinidad’s economy, with limited ability to finance its own government expenditures.

James suggested a fundamental reform of Tobago’s governance structure. He also proposed a focused approach to Tobago’s development, emphasising the need to diversify away from reliance on oil and gas. He advocated for the development of sectors such as education, healthcare, and creative industries, with an emphasis on exporting capital-producing services.

Additionally, he suggested incentivising investment in capital stock and raising the savings rate to support these initiatives.

On speaking to passengers at the ANR Robinson International Airport and the Piarco International Airport, many expressed their frustrations over the availability of flights.

Passengers clear security at the Piarco International Airport as they head to the Tobago departure lounge. - File photo

In a Newsday article published last week, Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association president Alpha Lorde accused state carrier Caribbean Airlines Ltd (CAL) of “strangling” the island’s economy by increasing flights to regional destinations at the expense of the domestic route.

Speaking at the weekly meeting of the Port of Spain Rotary Club at Goodwill Industries, 9 Fitzblackman Drive, Woodbrook, last week, Tobago House of Assembly Chief Secretary Farley Augustine also raised the matter of the airbridge. He said the daily number of flights has not been raised from 12 since it was reduced during the pandemic, and stressed that the issue of efficient public transport and connectivity was urgent.

“That has to be a Cabinet decision, as there are subsidies on the flights. It’s a cost-saving mechanism to have fewer flights because you spend less for subsidies, so it’s outside the reach of the CAL board and is a Cabinet decision.”

He reiterated the importance of connecting the two islands, highlighting air and sea transport as the primary means of achieving this.


"Tobago businesses call for new attractions, better deals – ‘Reboot tourism sector’"

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