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Tourism sector losses mount

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

There was a wave of emotional outpour on social media last week as the owners of Tobago’s most sought after tourism boating service announced they were ceasing operations in Tobago due to the continuous decline in visitor arrivals to the island.

Island Girl Sail Charters have been operating here for the last 21 years. The company owns two catamarans which offer all-inclusive extravagant coastal island tours which were part of many visitors’ “must -do List.”

The company’s operations gained international attention as it consistently received top ratings on the “Trip Advisor” website. TripAdvisor is travel-related website with user-generated reviews. Consumers’ reviews on goods and services are translated into specific grades.

Last Thursday, Island Girl’s proprietor Heidi Clarke, through a posting on the company’s Facebook page, cited the present state of Tobago’s tourism climate as the main reason for the company’s departure. She said the company was “starting to struggle financially” and is seeking alternative locations as it cannot continue its operation “to the standards our guests had become accustomed to over the years.”

The post added: “A sense of nostalgia, full of great memories of 21 years.”

The company has received an offer to lease the vessels from a tour company in Jamaica.

After Clarke’s posts, the company’s social media page was swarmed by former patrons, most knocking the Tobago House of Assembly and central government’s handling of the tourism sector.

Rajesh Jai Ramroop wrote: “I’m very sure if you were to ask the THA, their comment would be tourism is very much alive and we are having a great year.”

He said he was sad to see the recognisable brand “find business elsewhere. Not just in a different location but out to another island.”

Chic Boutique Hotel and Conference Centre noted: “I hope that THA and central Government realise the implications of their ineptitude to support tourism in Tobago very soon before other businesses have to make the same tough decisions.”

The post wished the boating brand the best and noted, “Hopefully you find a destination for Island Girl where tourism is embraced!”

Cathy Wright Williams wrote: “NOOO! A huge loss for Tobago and its tourism industry. As an ambassador for Tobago, this was one activity on any 'must-do ' list that was requested. Sad day.”

The company’s tour operator Sean Clarke, who also owns tourism property, told Tobago Today, “The loss of the Island Girl tour is a reflection of the poor state of the island’s tourism industry.

“The reality of the situation is that we have gone from arrival figures of 88,000 in 2008 to 18,000 in 2016. Our overheads are extremely high because a lot of property owners have permanent staff because we want to maintain a standard and whether we have business or not we still have to pay staff.”

He said the permanent staff of the company would not be the only ones affected by its closure.

“We are usually provided with fresh fish by a local fisherman for a number of years. He will have to find somewhere else to sell his goods or sell on a retail basis. We have a maxi driver we have a long term relationship with for the last 20 years, when he began he had one maxi now he has three so a lot of persons would be affected by the sad turn of affairs.”

Clarke said he attributes the island’s low arrival figures to poor marketing and what he calls the “ferry fiasco”.

“Tourism in the Caribbean is flourishing everywhere except in Tobago. The island doesn’t have a presence in the market and even local tourism is suffering because of persons being afraid they might get stuck in Tobago - just last week we had several cancellations.”

He said during a meeting last week, president of the Tobago Hoteliers and Tourism Association Chris James announced that six hotels were forced to close their doors and a number of restaurant have also done the same.

When contacted on the issue, Secretary in the Division of Tourism, Culture and Transportation Nadine Stewart-Phillips said she was aware of the challenges in the tourism sector.

“In the four months I have served in office steps have already been taken towards addressing the fundamental challenges in our tourism industry. A major step in terms of the Tobago Tourism Agency has already been taken. This agency will be better equipped and appropriately deal with the industry.”

She said it’s time for the industry to come closer together, as there are lessons to be learned from properties in Castara who experience near 100 per cent occupancy.

She said: “With the cooperation and commitment of all involved the sector will definitely see improvement.”