Last week, Joint Select Committee member and Minister of Energy and Energy Industries Franklin Khan observed that the inter-island ferry situation exposed the “precarious” nature of Tobago’s economy.
Many actions by the central government, Tobago House of Assembly (THA), hoteliers, bankers and islanders are responsible for its downfall. More than anything else, the state of the island’s tourism sector, its core economic driver, shows the extent of the decline.
In 2005, international tourist arrivals began decreasing. For a long time domestic tourism soared, filling the gap until the inter-island transportation situation reached crisis proportion earlier this year.
Sadly, while Tobago’s tourist arrivals decreased, other Caribbean islands’ figures rose for the corresponding period. This despite travellers’ reduced discretionary spending due to the global economic decline and in Britain’s case, an additional tax on British travellers.
Decreased arrival figures were blamed on the now defunct Tourism Development Company’s (TDC) lack of adequate destination marketing. Airlift then decreased significantly and major airline carriers dropped the route.
Marketing Destination Tobago was always a conflicting issue as, the 5th Schedule of THA’s Act #40 1996 gave it responsibility for tourism and by extension the product’s image. However, TDC marketed product Trinidad and Tobago from Trinidad and a poor relationship between the TDC and the then Division of Tourism and Transportation stymied Destination Tobago’s growth.
Those factors are just part of the tourism industry’s decline story. Other parts included the cost of the destination and the alleged non-existence of industry standards. To be fair, during the Neil Wilson-led era, a team was created to implement developing industry standards. It was led by a tourism consultant and comprised of members of THA and government-controlled bodies including fire, police, public health and employees from the then DOTT.
A similar effort, which took place simultaneously in Trinidad, resulted in a combined Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standard policy document being published. Unfortunately, about two years after the programme fell into abeyance.
Meanwhile, industry stakeholders struggled to find sufficient funds to upgrade their properties. A $250 million government-guaranteed loan was set up to assist but could not be accessed because banks lacked confidence in the industry.
Faced with ageing structures and reduced income, the stakeholders held on to their minimum hourly wage and, in many cases, less than ideal employment packages. Tobago’s workers left the industry en masse seeking THA jobs. New growth in domestic tourism required more workers but THA-employed workers did not return. Many had grown accustomed to less work and more pay. A similar situation prevails today.
The Orville London administration hired workers using central government sponsored social programmes such as the Community-based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (CEPEP) and Unemployment Relief Programme (URP). The THA’s workforce also swelled. In both areas, job acquisition depended mostly on political party affiliation.
Regardless of the reasons for the tourism industry’s decline, everyone must shoulder the responsibility to restore the industry. THA’s Tourism Authority has much to do.