The cost of Tobago tourism


The tide rolled roughly in at secluded, coconut-fringed Bacolet Bay in Tobago. The barman at the nearby hotel put the white caps down to the full moon that was distinctly visible, although a pale but large sun was only just setting to the west. The sky was brilliant blue again after a welcome shower and soft white clouds were being hurried along by the usual strong breeze that prevails on Tobago’s southern coast. It was heavenly.

We continued our drive along to Bacolet Point, where I had once considered buying a house. That was when there were open areas dense with vegetation.

Most of Bacolet has now been sold off in medium-sized plots to create yet another suburb of closely-packed dwellings. The southern part of the island is awash with them.

It is nostalgia, but I remember when the drive from Crown Point to Scarborough was unique, and one of my favourite experiences. Today, seeing crabs dodging the cars as they try to cross the main road from the boggy fields in Bon Accord is an impossibility. Most of the area behind the northern side of the Milford Road now comprises contiguous crowded suburbs with oversized houses and buildings painted in bright colours.

On the southern side, in order to extend the airport, the government has compulsorily purchased many of the properties that had spread there.

The airport construction site is vast. The scale is disproportionate to the size and quality of the Tobago tourism product, and Tobagonians are ambivalent about the extension, at best.

It certainly creates an imperative to up their tourism game. How achievable that will be is highly contestable when we are already not seeing any of the 54 per cent growth in Caribbean tourism. The reduced airlift from European and North American airlines is a major obstacle, but the question remains: will a bigger airport and more runways change the situation if there is inadequate accommodation and nothing extra to attract holidaymakers away from the other islands, Central America and even Florida?

Our country is plagued by the lack of will to maintain anything. We prefer our roads and buildings collapsing, requiring expensive repairs rather than investing in regular upkeep. That vice has ruined Tobago tourism, while new development has rushed ahead without any apparent restrictions, destroying the quaintness that made Tobago special. The once-famous exclusive, privately owned hotels, for various reasons, are all now not fit for purpose or are struggling, and the new private accommodation is mainly unattractive and substandard.

The public will never really know why Sandals or some of the other less high-profile foreign tourism investments did not succeed, but people in the industry seem to be hanging their hopes on a new $500-million 28-acre Marriott hotel and property development on Tobago’s southwest coast at Rocky Point.

Not everyone is so gung-ho about it, however. Locals are objecting on grounds of environmental damage that, given global warming, will hasten the destruction of the reef and livelihoods.

Last week, the Tobago Division of the TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce (TTCIC) reportedly told them to get smart.

As one tourism operative pointed out, the government is doing its bit by investing in the airport enlargement; now the private sector must contribute to Tobago’s economic development.

The dilemma is about how that should be done. For sure, one big high-rise hotel development is not the whole answer, and admonishing those who advocate conservation of Tobago’s natural beauty and assets is shortsighted. We have had five-star hotels and they have not endured. We need to discern the reasons why and not believe that come what may and no matter the environmental costs, we must build one now.

That is not a development plan, it is desperation.

Reportedly and correctly, Tobago TTCIC is calling for the tourism minister, the Tobago tourism secretary, the hotel association, the divers association and the Minister of Trade to meet to develop a plan.

Incorrectly however, the private sector cannot have its way. A workable plan must be a collaboration, which means a compromise and, first of all, the goal and the means must be agreed.

Tobago has a lot going for it. Clearly, Tobagonians are much better off than they once were and are investing in property for residential and tourism purposes, but most of it seems haphazard. Getting a judicious mix of visitor accommodation, like Barbados has done, with all of it operating to higher standards and with more tasteful aesthetics, would be an important component.

Barbados is an example of a good tourism product. Apart from idyllic beaches it has few natural beauty spots, but has turned them into treasures, and when tourists want to escape their charming hotels, there are also well-maintained historical architecture, various sorts of night spots, world-class restaurants, art galleries and swish shopping centres with international goods.

Tobago cannot emulate that exactly, but must understand that one hotel complex is not enough and also recognise that its natural beauty is its trump card and not be prepared to squander it.


"The cost of Tobago tourism"

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