Thursday, February 22, 2018

Tourism our sleeping economic tiger


Mark Fraser

Of late there have been repetitive calls for Trinidad and Tobago to diversify its economy away from the country’s unhealthy dependency on the finite resources that fuel an energy-based economy. This week Minister Bharath boasted that there was some $7 billion locked up in banks, and called on the private sector to find ways to unlock those funds for appropriate investment, and so further stimulate growth.

There is no doubt that T&T with a demonstrably healthy economy, manageable inflation, and  low unemployment, would seem to be an ideal investment prospect, so why has this not happened already? 

I will leave it up to the Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the Manufacturers Association to address challenges for the traditional elements of the economy, but  I would like to  speak to the provocative issue of tourism, which inexplicably continues to languish in the shadows. The truth is that there has long been a demonstrable lack of government commitment for tourism development in T&T, and without this little will ever happen.

Tobago is dangerously short of quality tourism accommodation, as a consequence of which its airlift out of source markets is continuously under threat. Witness Virgin Atlantic Airlines’ recent decision to pull out of Tobago, and the complete absence of suitable lift out of North America, potentially our most lucrative market.

The excuse of inadequate VIP airport facilities for Virgin’s high end tourist traffic is only a small part of the problem. The much more potent reasons are the total inadequacy of ANR Robinson Airport as an international facility, and the shortage of suitable resort rooms to attract tourists, resulting in a diminishing lack of consumer demand.

Given T&T’s obvious investment potential, why has there not been a stampede to build a new generation of resorts to mitigate the airlift problem in Tobago, and equally important, to provide Trinidad with a valid resort component to its metropolitan room stock, currently conspicuous by its absence?

The absence of any demonstrable government commitment to tourism is, of course, the overarching reason, but there are a number of others: 

• Our investment incentives are simply not competitive with other Caribbean destinations, far less those in the wider world. An upgrading of these incentives should therefore be a priority.

• Full employment may look good on paper, but it is far less attractive to a potential investor looking to open up a resort requiring high quality service, and therefore plentiful staff availability. It will therefore be necessary for the government to open up the labour market, as Arthur Lok Jack so logically called for.

• Most telling or all, T&T’s tourism image, long the best kept secret in Caribbean tourism, despite the industry’s obvious potential, is so far below the radar as to be almost beyond consideration when planning a vacation. 

Tourism offers an ideal opportunity to unlock much of Minister Bharath’s $7 billion, and is sitting there waiting to happen, it would not take much to open these doors, just the political will to make it happen.

John Bell