Minister of Tourism, Culture & the Arts, Randall Mitchell argues his point as the debate continues on the Trinidad and Tobago Revenue Authority Bill, 2021.

On Tuesday, Sandals Resorts International (SRI) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of the West Indies and Florida International University’s (FIU) Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management to create the Gordon “Butch” Stewart International School of Hospitality & Tourism.

The new school will be built at the Western Jamaica Campus of The University of the West Indies, Mona in the tourism capital of Montego Bay, the birthplace of the Sandals brand.

SRI’s Executive Chairman, Adam Stewart, said, “Creating opportunity through education is fundamental to our organisation and to the successful future of the Caribbean, as it is to all people seeking a better life for themselves and their families…This is truly, a dream come true.”

He also spoke of the transformative power of tourism for Caribbean economies, saying, “Tourism is the single most powerful industry across the Caribbean and its ability to connect with and impact wider industries and subsequently Caribbean economies is often under-appreciated. This partnership and this school is an obvious investment in the education of Caribbean people but beyond that it is also an investment in Caribbean tourism and the many other critical industries that we support.”

Nowhere in the region is tourism more under-estimated than in T&T. Blessed as we have been by oil and later gas that has provided so much revenue to this country and allowed us to have a standard of living that is better than most of the English Speaking Caribbean.

I have said it many times, T&T is not a poor country. Our problem has been the inefficient spend of our resources, the collapse of institutions that encourages corruption to get things done, the lack of sufficient productivity, the dependence on the state for support and the most debilitating of them all, a sense that this wealth will be self-perpetuating.

The day is coming soon when we will see the world moving unrelentingly to end investment in fossil fuel and an end to the major revenue source of the country.

It is in this context that I wish to congratulate two ministers in this government who against the odds seem to be getting things done. The first is the Minister of Agriculture.

Let me say for the sake of transparency I have known Clarence Rambharat since we were boys in Rio Claro. We grew up in the same village, he went to Presentation College and I QRC, we played small goal together and in retrospect, even then, we often talked about what we felt were the major issues in the country.

Rambharat has been able to significantly reduce, though not eliminate the serious challenges facing farmers, that of land tenure. A lawyer by profession, I am sure it is one of the things that he would have found unacceptable and taken it as a project to do in the ministry.

Land tenure to farmers is important as it allows for many things including access to government grants and ADB funding. This can then help in increasing investment in the sector and hopefully improved yields. Rambharat has also begun the process of bringing much needed private sector investment back into agriculture. The failed government involvement in all aspects of the economy is well known, from Caroni 1975 Limited to Petrotrin. I am clear in my mind that government needs to stay out of operating state-owned enterprises and even if it makes the initial investment it should allow for the companies to operate without government involvement and control. The evidence is clear, look at the success of First Citizens, the success of Tringen and the early signs of Heritage. Compare that to what the NGC has become and the myriad of failed state-owned enterprises, and well, you get the picture.

In praising the work of Rambharat and Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell it cannot be ignored that they both suffer from a lack of an overarching strategy for the agriculture and tourism sectors. To be sure they have had individual successes, but in keeping true to form with the approach by this government, they seem to feel that the citizens do not need to know where they want to take our economy and how to get there. In short, they do not articulate a real strategy going forward.

For Mitchell’s part, he recently told the Parliament of a plan to add several events to the tourism calendar and develop them.

Being the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, I wrote in this very space last year that it was perhaps the only innovative appointment that Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley made in his new Cabinet.

Like Rambharat, Mitchell has gone about his work quietly, succeeding where Rowley failed by bringing a major resort to Tobago and not trying to be in the media all day like the Minister of everything, full of sound and fury.

Mitchell recently told the Parliament that in the June/July months the ministry believes there is the possibility of packaging and marketing as a festival, the number of band launches that occur during the period into a band launch season occurring over the space of two weekends which, as we know a band launch takes the form of a model runway, with costume designs, models and designers during a premium fete.

He told the Upper House that following the band-launch initiative the Tourism Ministry sees the possibility of attracting visitors who could not make it to Carnival in a festival of fetes.

“And towards the end of August, we envision another festival that celebrates our distinct creative culture and how we have been able to innovate our hosting of events over the past years. With these new festivals, we see the creation of economic value for our cultural workers, our artistes, promoters, musicians and their ability to earn. As well as all the service providers,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who also has responsibility for the arts and the creative sector, noted that the cancellation of Carnival 2021 was a major hit to the economy. He pointed out that Carnival alone accounts for 10 per cent of the country’s total visitors and almost half a billion dollars in direct spend from visitors, not to mention the overall spend.

“There is no denying the vast economic impact for successful festivals. Carnival alone, the direct economic value for visitor spend is around $450 million. And this is just counting the 10 days leading up to Carnival Monday and Tuesday. And of course, the benefits are enormous when you consider all the stakeholders who earn from this festival­—the promoters, the artistes, the service providers, mas makers, musicians, vendors and taxi drivers,” he noted.

The reality is that before this year there was even suggestion from some that Carnival was a waste of taxpayers money, not understanding that the government’s investment in the festival was a pittance compared to the impact it has on the economy and the wide range of beneficiaries.

What we can argue is whether there is a charge and collection of VAT for example on costumes or taxes paid by major fete promoters and event organisers?

The time has come for us to see tourism for what it is. A major economic opportunity for the people of T&T. It has the potential to be a major job creator, to create wealth and earn foreign exchange. Let us look at other islands, let us look at the USA and Europe how they are able to earn money from their sites and attractions and pay for their upkeep.

Maybe if we are earning more from tourism then there will be less pressure on the government to spend every cent we earn from oil and gas and borrow on future earnings. Just maybe we can build a more sustainable economy.

Rambharat and Mitchell, perhaps your colleagues just may take a page from your book and perform. Just maybe!