When my article on Conservation tourism for Tobago was written last week the Business Express for July 4, which contained a report on an interview with the new Minister of Tourism, had not yet appeared. I shall therefore discuss some of the Minister's views as recorded in that report.
A statement was made, not by the Minister but by the reporter who wrote the article (with reference to the decline in the tourism industry in Tobago): "Tobago is now counting on Cadiz to reverse that trend." Given the present discussions on internal self-government for Tobago I would suggest that a more appropriate comment would have been: "Tobago is now counting on Cadiz to assist the Tobago House of Assembly to reverse that trend." This issue of Tobago's authority over tourism development goes back some 12 years.
During discussion of the Tourism Development Bill in the Senate (I was then an Independent Senator), I moved an amendment to the bill to ensure that the people of Tobago (or their representatives in the Tobago House of Assembly) would make the final decision on proposed projects in Tobago. This was supported by the two Government Senators from Tobago (who were subsequently removed from the Senate) and the Opposition Senators (of the PNM), but the amendment was narrowly defeated. I hope that the present Government will not develop and rush through projects for Tobago (without the approval of THA) before the new arrangements for internal self-Government are in place so that Tobago will have control of its tourism development.
On a similar issue I was surprised to read the following in the Express Business article: "In Tobago, Cadiz feels that a 'visitor unwelcome' message was sent out to the world with the issue of the 2007 Alien Land Holder Licence Order, where severe restrictions were placed on foreigners looking to buy and build on the island ... the general idea that was sent out by the licence order was a negative one and I think it discouraged foreigners and foreign investors," Cadiz said.
Many people in Tobago were concerned with the alienation of land to foreigners who built houses in Tobago rented them internationally, received rents abroad thus avoiding the payment of local income tax. Further, land values escalated to the extent that young people in that island could hardly afford to purchase house sites.
In any event there is a mechanism in place for land purchase by foreigners so there is no absolute prohibition and this need not be an impediment to investment. Minister Cadiz would be getting off on the wrong foot if he were to again open the floodgates for wholesale alienation of land to foreigners. No doubt the Minister will be under pressure from those persons in Tobago who see large dollar signs in selling their land to foreigners and also from those who arrange the transactions — and these latter are powerful forces.
There must be a long-term sustainable tourism policy. I argued in my article last week that Tobago could develop a completely different tourism policy that would depend more on local investments in accommodations provided by local investors for conservation tourism.
The Express Business also quoted Minister Cadiz as saying: "We have to ask ourselves what we have to offer that's new" and "We have to figure what we can do that's different, how we can reinvent and how we are going to market ourselves as a destination." Tobago certainly has something different to offer and that is why I have been urging consideration of conservation tourism for the last 12 years.
Distinction must be made between conservation tourism, eco-tourism and community tourism. Whereas eco-tourism, if it is to be sustainable, must necessitate conservation, it may not include communities. On the other hand community tourism may be developed in urban areas and so involve little of the natural environment with which eco-tourism is associated.
In the case of Tobago I advocate conservation tourism to include in its scope active participation of communities, urban and rural. Conservation in this context includes the natural environment, the heritage and culture of the people of Tobago. Thus our major concern is not with building and filling more five-Star hotels in and around Scarborough but with local investment in nature resorts such as Footprints, Adventure Farms, Cuffie River Nature Retreat and family accommodations in rural areas.
In addition to the nature resorts such as the three referred to above there should develop community-based restaurants and shops, family-based accommodation and communities should be involved in conservation. Standards must be monitored by private sector associations and by the THA.
The nature resorts should have close relationship with the communities in which they are sited. For example in the case of Cuffie River Nature Retreat this has been achieved by various means. First, in the construction stage of the project, both skilled and unskilled labour from the local communities of Moriah and Runnemede were employed.
Where possible on the job training was given to the unskilled labour while in the case of the skilled, there was provided the opportunity to upgrade what they already knew via the teaching of new techniques. Currently, in the implementation phase of the enterprise, all staff is from Moriah and Runnemede. It is important to understand that in conservation tourism, the adjacent community or communities must be prime beneficiaries of socio-economic activity undertaken by any enterprise establishing itself within the community.
Cuffie River Nature Retreat utilises the services of community businesses, suppliers and trades persons on an ongoing basis, creating via these means a sense of partnership with the community. Partnering with volunteer organisations within the community via actual membership and/or donations to worthy causes is yet another way in which community relationships have been developed.
Critical to the success of conservation tourism is the support of the people of Tobago. The survey carried out some years ago indicated support for this approach and thumbs down to large luxury hotels in favour of smaller entities and family type accommodation.
• John Spence is Professor Emeritus, UWI. He also served as an Independent Senator