Tobago has been firmly ignored by every central government overseeing the country’s business, said Diane Hadad, newly re-elected president of the Tobago Division of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce.
“I offer no apologies for saying it. I don’t know if people feel it’s some sort of deal they need to make for it, or whether they understand it is their obligation to take care of Tobago’s needs as an island and not as an appendix. Tobago has to stand up and take its place. Why should other parts of the country like Penal/Debe or Siparia or Port of Spain get that attention? We are no different. It’s part of the country...Trinidad and Tobago is one country and we need to be treated in an equal manner,” Hadad told the Express in a brief interview after the Chamber’s annual general meeting dinner last Wednesday at Hyatt Regency (Trinidad), Port of Spain.
This negligence has been manifested in one of the largest and most recognised airlines flying to Tobago, UK-based Virgin Atlantic (VA), pulling its schedule to the island amid constant customer complaints about the inadequate infrastructure of the island’s ANR Robinson International Airport, as well as the dearth of room stock on the island.
“We are going to be back to square one. Already we have seen a slight decline (in arrivals) and a fall-out in people moving around and so the spend (has decreased). VA will be willing to come back—all airlines are willing to talk to us, but the fact of the matter is in the agreements there isn’t a condition about the airport or room stock; it has always been promised because their customers will complain and (in considering those complaints), they are going to bring that to the negotiating table,” said Hadad.
“We have been promising them upgrades for a number of years and no government has actually taken it and dealt with it and I think that has to be one of the most unfair things to happen to the island.”
Upgrades to the airport have been mentioned in successive national budgets, but in the four years the People’s Partnership Government has been in power, there have been three ministers of Transport—four if one considers the Ministry is an offshoot from the former Works and Transport, now Works and Infrastructure Ministry.
“Where are we really going? How can you get any deliveries with such changes in any ministry? It’s ludicrous. No country can move forward like that. When are you going to get continuity and results? It’s the responsibility of our leaders...if you can’t do the upgrades, then you need to pass on the money to the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) and give them the responsibility,” Hadad said.
She noted that VA has expressed interest in returning—provided upgrades happen, “but I don’t know how patient we can expect VA to be”.
The central government is supposed to handle the airport upgrades, but the $250 million Tourism Development Government Loan Agreement Guarantee, which was signed last June, was supposed to allow proprietors, restaurateurs and hoteliers to access financing to upgrade and expand their room stock and facilities.
While Hadad described the signing as a “milestone”, she said those who want to access the funds are trapped in a Catch-22 situation, where bankers and other financiers don’t want to lend unless there are people to come in and take up the rooms.
“Do they want us to bring in more airlift and put the people where? We don’t know,” she said..
Another issue faced by the island is that the THA is the largest employer, making it difficult for the already struggling tourism sector to find adequate labour.
“The THA is being asked to release staff and all these makeshift jobs they have created. We’re also asking them to get back into agriculture in a heavy way,” said Hadad.