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Resurrecting Tobago

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Easter weekend is usually one of those peak periods for domestic tourism on which Tobago has come to rely. For most Trinidadians, the island offers the best chance of a staycation—all the benefits of a long weekend getaway, just 20 minutes by air or three hours by sea, without the hassle of customs and immigration.

The highpoint of Easter in Tobago happens, not on Good Friday or even Easter Monday, but on the Tuesday after when all roads lead to Buccoo for the popular goat and crab races.

Carried out with all the trappings of traditional horse racing, complete with stables, trainers and live commentators, the premiere event is the goat racing, which has been taking place on the island for approximately eight decades. It features “jockeys” running alongside the goats on a specially constructed 110m track.

This event has been steadily increasing in popularity over the years and now has a strong following among locals and visitors. Virgin founder Richard Branson is reported to be a fan.

The crab race, which is of more recent vintage, also has its appeal, each race generating excitement as the jockeys use a short length of string to guide the competitors to the finish line.

All this good, clean fun has been a strong selling point, making Tobago the place to be for Easter.

But that is not all. There is also the Tobago Jazz Experience, originally known as the Plymouth International Jazz Festival, which usually takes place towards the end of April.

At its peak, this musical event attracted droves of domestic and international patrons eager to enjoy top local and regional jazz and world music talents.

Although not as successful as similar events in other parts of the region, the Tobago Jazz Experience still managed to be a fairly lucrative event for the island’s tourist industry. There was a time when, by this time, all accommodations on the island would be fully booked.

However, it doesn’t look like there will be the usual influx of visitors to savour the sister island’s considerable charms this year. While industry stakeholders are still holding out for a miracle, the prognosis is not good.

In recent years, with marked declines in international visitors, hoteliers and tourism stakeholders in Tobago have been looking to domestic tourists to bring some revenue to the struggling industry. In the good times, it was estimated that domestic tourism brought in some $860 million in revenue annually, making up for the shortfalls with international visitors.

However, with the broken sea and airbridge making travel between the islands uncertain at best, it’s looking to be a bleak Easter and April in Tobago.

At this late stage, even if the long delayed T&T Spirit finally returns to service and even if current arrangements with CAL—including use of a wet leased LIAT aircraft—operate perfectly over the next few days, losses will continue to pile up.

The only relief hinges on the arrival of the Galleons Passage to pick up the slack on the seabridge and that vessel is still thousands of miles away somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, slowly making its way to Honolulu in Hawaii. By the time that vessel finally docks in Port-of-Spain, it will be too late to save Easter in Tobago. The opportunity to capitalise on this vital holiday period will be lost.

As if that isn’t bad enough, April and the Easter also mark a sad milestone for the island since it was approximately one year ago that the Super Fast Galicia sailed away, triggering the start of the seabridge turmoil. There has hardly been a month since then without major disruptions in passenger and ferry services between the two islands.

Even the most optimistic of projections are for the losses to continue for tourism-dependent Tobago. Those losses, currently estimated to be about $750 million, increase for every day of the protracted inter-island transport turmoil.

This is a dire situation for the island. Without the guarantee of that vital connectivity with Trinidad, Tobago’s tourism industry is in a tailspin. Tourism is to Tobago’s economy what oil and gas is to Trinidad, accounting for almost 12 per cent of GDP and is the main source of employment on the island apart from the Tobago House of Assembly (THA).

To some extent, the current difficulties have something to do with the fact that for T&T as a whole the industry has always been of secondary importance, never mind the Rowley administration’s proposals to make it one of the drivers of economic diversification. No real effort has been made to properly develop and sustain that sector, so in these lean economic times, the consequences of under development and under resourcing are plain for all to see,

That is why there has been little or no benefit for this country from recent growth in Caribbean tourism. While in almost every other part of the region tourism has done better than the rest of the world with consecutive years of growth in arrivals and revenue, the opposite has been the case in T&T.

To be fair, seabridge woes are not the only cause of declines in Tobago tourism. Increased crime, particularly attacks on tourists, have triggered negative travel advisories.
Deterioration in water supply and other utility services and delays in long promised upgrades to the ANR Robinson International Airport are also factors.

In the face of all of this, government’s promises to restart Tobago’s tourism thrust must be kept. The plans outline for development of the sector in the 2017/18 National Budget should be top priority.

To do otherwise will have consequences. The longer it takes to resolve all the problems in an industry that is so vital to Tobago’s economic survival, the more complicated the process of rebuilding and restoring becomes.

The window of opportunity presented by the 2018 Easter season is now firmly shut. What remains of peak holiday periods later down in the year are opportunities that can easily be lost if proper marketing and promotion do not begin now. That has been one of the biggest shortcomings with our tourism strategies.

It is already late in the day to be embarking on promotional campaigns for Great Race Weekend and the Tobago Heritage Festival, which are just a few short months away. However, even a late start is better than no start at all.

There are now supposed to be two tourism agencies driving the sector. By now the Tobago entity, which already has some staff, should be operating on full throttle, working to salvage whatever benefits are still available for the island this year with the aim of a strong finish after what has been one of the most disastrous periods in its recent history.


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