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THA Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis

The Easter long weekend is usually one of the most marked dates on the calendar for vacationers, as many plot trips abroad or at very least a getaway to Tobago.

With the borders closed the latter remained the foremost option, and for the first time in almost a year Tobago enjoyed a weekend that resembled normalcy.

This surge in domestic tourism, was greatly appreciated by hotels and businesses

“Over the last couple months there has been some benefit particularly over the Easter period. Hotels and other accommodation sector members were on record as saying they have 80 per cent occupancy in most cases. So the activities were welcome from the domestic market,” said chief secretary Ancil Dennis, who also serves as the Secretary of Tourism in the Tobago House of Assembly.

The 80 per cent occupancy represented the highest occupancy numbers the island had seen since the closure of the borders and was indeed the highest level activity seen in the island since beaches were reopened in October of last year.

President of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association Chris James confirmed that the estimated 80 per cent occupancy was triple what Tobago had experienced since the start of 2021, with occupancy rates hovering at 15 per cent from January to March.

The weekend also saw increased business for Tobagonians.

“It has created some level of opportunity for income generation in the Tobago tourism sector. So yeah, there has been some benefits. Obviously that will continue to be the mainstay for the tourism sector or until we get to the point of the borders being reopened,” said Dennis.

But while 80 per cent occupancy is good, it still wasn’t quite what Tobago had experienced prior to the shutdown of international travel to and from T&T. Nor is it enough to properly sustain the business sector of the island.

“One Easter weekend of domestic tourism is not going to boost any bank accounts and save anybody who has been hurting for 13 years,” said Diane Hadad, president of the Tobago Division of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce.

THTA president James confirmed that domestic tourism however still opted for self contained villas and self catering spots as opposed to hotels, who despite seeing revenue from these bookings were still far from hitting a level where they can be fully staffed.

Guests, he reported, also still opted for two day stays as opposed to longer visits.

The Chief Secretary also admitted that the numbers did not even match previous numbers recorded for the long weekend.

“We have reports in the past of 100 per cent occupancy, 90 something per cent hotel’s totally booked where you can’t get a room at all and trying to come during Jazz during Easter,” said Dennis.

While the absence of international tourists may account for a significant chunk of the reduced numbers, there is another issue; the lingering fear of travel by domestic tourists due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dennis said he personally received reports of cancellations amid scepticism about “activities” in Tobago.

“Of course as much as the domestic tourism is quite active There will be those persons even from Trinidad who are fearful. I’ve seen persons, I’ve heard persons suggest that they would not be travelling during this Easter period because of the fear of you know, some of the activities that may take place and expose them to the virus and that kind of thing,” the Chief Secretary told the Business Guardian.

“So people are still not as willing to travel, even locally, even in the domestic market, because of the presence of COVID-19. So even due to that you would find that the traffic is not as heavy as it would have been in the past when we were not in a pandemic.”

But that scepticism has also prompted a welcome change, according to Hadad, who said more domestic visitors are seeking the path less travelled to avoid crowds and encourage more familial gatherings.

“The level of tourism we have now is the tourism we would have enjoyed. Let me say years ago, which was more family-oriented and that type of bonding of families rather than where we got into the set of fête, zesser fête, drink more, lime more behave badly more all of that has been curtailed,” she said, “I want to describe it as some measure of forgiveness and re-connectivity that’s happened.”

This has lead to Trinidadians exploring areas of Tobago that they in the past would not have visited and in the process engaging and encouraging business in other areas of the island.

“Once people are moving around and they are by the beach or whatever but they will consume more, we will eat outside they will drink outside. So they must have, we have seen a lot of vendors come out.

“Now, you’re seeing a lot more booths. So clearly people are coming out to see what they can capture in terms of revenue,” said Hadad, who hoped this continued exploration would encourage more of these returns from the domestic tourism market.

“What we will hope for is a continuation of that Trinidadians appreciating Tobago in that way. I know a lot of them, because of COVID have gone out of the norm. So they are not in the normal places. They’ve explored the island even more. And in doing so they had seen how beautiful the whole island is, and not just congregated into the southwest area,” she said.

This has also, according to Hadad, increased the appreciation for some of the overlooked services of Tobago.

“A lot of them have been pleasantly surprised. They have given reports to me as to how well, they were treated that their elderly parents were lifted onto boats and taken care of so they could enjoy a boat trip out of Charlotteville and Castara,” she said.

“I want to say that COVID has its positive.”

This renewed appreciation she hopes will continue to rebuild faith between the islands as the business sector in the island has always been bolstered in part by the domestic tourist market.

“We have always recognised the value of the Domestic Tourism and the opportunity for Trinidadians to enjoy Tobago and vice versa, Tobagonians to enjoy Trinidad. This is the reason we would have been so, let me say consistent and persistent about the Air bridge and the seabridge working properly,” said Hadad, who stressed that during this period the inter-island travel services have been functioning exceptionally well, further boosting business in the island.

But Hadad admitted that other issues are still to be ironed out.

“I am certain as well that Trinidadians who in the past would have rejected Tobago for one reason or the other and let me say some who are complaining of bad service. Some would have felt unwanted,” she said, “But we seem to be on a peace, a path of peace P-E-A-C-E and it is from there that you are seeing people are being hosted well again, and that whole process of appreciating each other and learning to love each other.”

Chief Secretary Dennis also confirmed that there is a renewed emphasis on customer service, as it was highlighted as an issue which required attention, particularly before the international market returns to Tobago.

“Well we have to allay some of the concerns of our visitors, not just from Trinidad but internationally and that is why we’re working on this sector customer service being chief among them. There has always been an issue with customer service, the quality of the rooms, our ability to regulate the tourism sector effectively and all these are issues that we are confronting now given this standstill” he said, explaining that the THA had plans afoot to address customer service training across the island.

“So the Tobago tourism agency limited is collaborating with an international entity to facilitate customer service training on the island. And I think that should start within the next two months and that is going to be broad-based across the sector,” said the Chief Secretary.