FLASHBACK: 2016 Cruise ship tourists in Port-of-Spain.

As stakeholders and officials continue to anticipate the restart of international tourism for T&T emphasis now should be on establishing a Tourism Recovery Committee as have been done by almost all Caribbean counterparts since 2020, advised UWI lecturer in tourism studies Tenisha Brown-Williams.

She noted that with closed borders since March 2020, T&T has not received any regional or international visitors, registering a decline of 53.5 per cent from January to June 2020 and a 98.6 per cent decline from January to March 2021.

Specifically, cruise visits declined by 36.3 per cent in T&T from January to November 2020.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) more than 50,000 people were employed in the sector in 2019 in T&T which represents over eight per cent of total employment and a travel and tourism contribution to GDP of approximately eight per cent according to Brown-Williams, who has over 20 years experience in the hospitality and tourism sector in the region said.

She added that COVID-19 has caused severe disruptions in the local tourism sector contributing to significant job loss and a reduction of the GDP contribution (forecasted) to be over 50 per cent in 2020, according to the InterAmerican Development Bank.

However, Brown-Williams noted that prior to the pandemic the highest number of arrivals ever recorded was approximately 463,000 in 2005 with a general decline of arrivals over the last decade and a half.

“It means therefore that prior to COVID-19 there was much work to be done to improve the T&T’s tourism sector and to enhance the destination’s competitiveness.

“More so now, COVID-19 has changed the dynamics of global tourism which calls for a different approach to tourism development,” Brown-Williams said.

She suggested that this period of continued border closure should see the public and private sectors and other stakeholders in the tourism value chain coming together to review regional and international trends, to develop strategies for new or improved tourism experiences and marketing activities.

In other Caribbean destinations, Brown-Williams noted, this has resulted in new tourism experiences such as the Bahamas Extended Access Travel Stay (BEATS) and the Dominica Work in Nature (WIN) programme which encourages visitors to live and work at these destinations.

She said in other destinations such as in St Lucia they have rolled out the “Saint Lucia Inspires” blog series highlighting nature and wildlife, arts and culture, culinary delights, adventure and wellness of the destination.

“Many traditional sun, sea and sand Caribbean destinations are now developing and promoting their eco/nature and health and wellness assets because of the forecasted demand for such experiences by potential travellers,” Brown-Williams noted.

She said T&T has always had these unique tourism products that are not reflective of the traditional sun, sea and sand offerings, and reiterated that now is the time to have concerted discussions and demonstrate the will to properly develop, package and market these experiences.

“Tobago has had an exceptionally good start with the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere designation, the award of Blue Flag pilot beaches and the recent Green Key certification of two tourism accommodation properties. “These efforts must be mirrored in Trinidad as well. Historically, the global tourism sector and Caribbean tourism in particular has proven to be quite resilient and will recover; both T&T must ready itself to capitalise on its imminent recovery,” Brown-Williams added.

Tobago needs help

The Tobago Tourism Industry has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, said President of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association (THTA) Chris James.

He said the association is proposing that Government establish a standing committee on tourism to discuss measures and get tourism on track to make a serious contribution to the national economy.

He added the committee should immediately be reconvene with membership culled from the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), the Ministry of Tourism, the Tobago Tourism Agency Ltd (TTAL), the Tobago Chamber of Commerce, the THTA, and industry stakeholders.

This collaborative approach, James argued has proven to be highly successful.

He said the last standing committee on tourism achieved a 55 per cent increase in international arrivals in three years (2002 to 2005) and secured nine additional international flights during the same period.

International arrivals peaked at 87,796 in 2005 and have been on a precipitous decline ever since, slumping to under 20,000 in 2019, James added.

He said the government loan guarantee programme should also be expanded.

“Since 2012 a guarantee loan facility has been in place for qualifying properties in the Tobago tourism sector.

“The loan facility has so far only been extended to properties with between six to 50 rooms and the programme is under-subscribed,” James said.

He explained that one of the reasons for this is that many small properties are unable to meet the strict lending criteria––primarily possession of public liability insurance, audited accounts, Town and Country Planning approval (outstanding issues with the Real Property Ordinance is still a problem), and tax clearance certificates.

James suggested that the loan facility should be extended to include properties with more than 51 rooms; and businesses within the allied tourism sector.

He said qualifying businesses should be given the opportunity to consolidate existing loans for 15 years at a low interest rate, thereby ensuring business continuity.

Additional funding for Tobago

James said additional funds should be available to Tobago’s accommodation providers through the Tourism Accommodation Relief Grant.

Noting the country is almost 14 months into the coronavirus he said the $50 million grant was announced in March 2020 and TTAL began accepting applications to facilitate upgrades (excluding financial support).

The THTA anticipated that this initiative would be under-subscribed given the difficulty small business owners have in meeting the grant criteria, James said.

“We also predicted that the actual amount of money disbursed would be significantly less than $50 million. In the 14 months since the pandemic began, Tobago businessowners have found themselves mired in debt,” he added.

James said they are struggling to meet continuing operating expenses even though they remain closed and unable to earn revenue.

Mortgages, loans, payroll, utilities, maintenance, security, and creditors still have to be paid, James said, adding that of the $50 million allocated to the Tobago accommodation sector, the actual sum dispersed to date has been considerably less than that amount.

He suggested the remainder of the $50 million allocation should be made available to these qualified applicants to pay off debts accrued during the period in which businesses were closed or unable to operate.

“This will not be an additional drain on the treasury and will enable businessowners pay their staff and resume operations.

“This will also ensure that government funds are being used for the purpose for which they are intended,” James added.

Other proposals include a COVID-19 tax relief, an amnesty on taxes and penalties until businesses operate at some level of normalcy plus any measures taken by a business such as putting in additional infrastructure, staff training, purchase of specialised equipment which should be tax deductible at 150 percent.

This should apply to all registered businesses in T&T, James said.

Value Added Tax (VAT) exemptions should also be granted for Tobago registered businesses for five years.

This, James explained, will have the double impact of stimulating economic activity and giving businessowners much needed time to recover from the effects of the pandemic. He added that Tobago should also be made a duty-free zone.

Other recommendations by the association include a more aggressive social media campaign.

“Use future hotel tax revenue for marketing instead of paying hotel tax directly into the consolidated fund. Create a separate marketing fund for part or all of the hotel tax revenue collected in T&T,” James added.

He added the Land Licence Order of February 2007 should be abolished as this has not worked the way in which it was intended and has instead seriously hampered Tobago’s economic development.

“Abolition of the Land Licence Order, together with VAT free and duty free incentives, will actively encourage foreign direct investment in Tobago and boost the economy tremendously,” James added.

He also recommended the quantity and quality of locally qualified hospitality industry professionals be expanded, noting that Tobago lacks qualified hospitality personnel

And in this vein, James adds that an island-wide manpower audit is required to identify the needs.

James also called on Government to address the “COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy,” saying that the association has noted with concern a significant level of “vaccine hesitancy within the Tobago population.”

He added especially concerning are the low numbers of healthcare workers who have been vaccinated to date.