Expressing shock, surprise and disappointment, tourism stakeholders say the appointment of Chandresh Sharma as Tourism minister will set back the billion-dollar industry by about 20 months.
They feel a new minister takes about six months to learn the job. They are also hoping Tourism Development Company (TDC) chairman Brian Frontin will not be removed.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar appointed Sharma to the tourism portfolio in the third Cabinet reshuffle since assuming office in May 2010. Sharma succeeds Stephen Cadiz, who replaces Sharma in the Transport Ministry. Cadiz last year succeeded Rupert Griffith.
Among those who registered their angst yesterday were Hassel Thom, president Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants and Tourism Association; and Chris James, president of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association, at a meeting to discuss the Cabinent reshuffle at the Marriott Hotel, Invaders Bay, Port of Spain.
They were joined by other stakeholders, including Kevin Kenny, director of Trinidad Hotel Restaurants and Tourism Associaton (THRTA); and Lorraine Pouchet, first vice-president T&T Incoming Tour Operators (TTITOA), who also felt Sharma’s appointment will disrupt the tourism sector’s stability and the progress they have made in attracting tourists and tour operators, along with linkages with the Tobago House of Assembly (THA).
They made it clear it was not a personal issue with Sharma, adding they have not formally written the Prime Minister.
Thom said: “Sharma’s appointment will negatively affect one of our strongest pillars of diversification. He is the third tourism minister. We have seen where every time a minister changes, tourism experiences unwanted upheavals. It takes any minister six months to get their feet on the ground before we can start propelling this industry.
“We felt with the combination of Frontin and Cadiz, it could work. They came with no airs. Based on the information they gathered from the stakeholders, they formulated their strategies. That change is going to put us back no less than 20 months,” he added.
Kenny said: “Tourism brings in about $5 billion and employs directly about 300,000 people. There are as many people involved it as the manufacturing sector. We are the only Caribbean country that is operating at a lower level. We could have about $400 or $600 million coming into the coffers, but we have to strike confidence in the banking sector.”
Describing Cadiz as “trainable”, tour guide and environmentalist Courtenay Rooks said: “We started to get things moving with Frontin. We were just out of the blocks and starting to see foreign press and tour operators interested. We are appalled.”
Denise Aleong-Thomas, president of the Small Tourism Accommodation of T&T (STAOTT), said she hoped Sharma will reconvene the standing committee meetings to discuss the tourism sector’s issues while Pouchet said she hoped Finance Minister Larry Howai will allocate about US$50 million to properly market “Destination Trinidad and Tobago”.
James said Tobago needed 1,500 rooms to be built, and any destabalisation will not attract the investors since it is “their bread and butter”. Already, he said, there had been a 75 per cent decrease in arrivals from 2005 to 2008.
“Tobago does not have the time to wait for any implementation. We do not need any foreclosures. We managed in the last six months to bridge gaps, and we are working with the stakeholders (TDC, THA) and we need to keep the momentum,” said James.
Former Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA) president John Bell said if the 1,500 rooms were to be built in Tobago, the airlift would be improved and ultimately, the economy will benefit.