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Manta Lodge Hotel refurbishment in Tobago.

It is now more than six years since the controversial acquisition of the Sanctuary Villa at Black Rock and Manta Lodge, a Dive Hotel at Speyside, by the Tobago House of Assembly and now comes word that there is still no plan for Sanctuary Villas and Manta Lodge has not been repaired.

Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis confirmed that while work had begun at Manta Lodge he is now expecting it to receive guests at the end of the year.

“Manta Lodge is ongoing. Of course we started the renovations to that. I expect that to be completed before the end of the year, at which time we will look at what the options to managing that space to be, to be added into room stock of the island,” said the Chief Secretary.

He said the work on the facility is encouraging as the Hotel would cater to a specific niche market, dive tourism, given it’s location in Speyside, a popular diving location with its huge brain coral.

“It’s going to be a much needed addition, since it caters, it will cater specifically to the dive market,” said Dennis.

However there was no such good news for the Sanctuary Villa, which Dennis said the THA was still shopping around for potential investors and managers.

“In terms of Sanctuary, we have made no new arrangement with that facility as well. So the situation is still the same. We are actively pursuing an investor with the hope of coming in, taking over the facility, investing in it, as it relates to the construction and renovation and of course the hope is that you will get such an investor to manage the space as well. Alright, so Sanctuary is still on the cards.”

The two properties have been a source of contention since their acquisitions in 2015. They were bought for a combined sum of $32 million dollars according to the THA. However, several commentators have questioned the purchase, given the lack of feasibility studies undertaken before the properties were purchased as well as the continued expense incurred for security and maintenance of the properties which have not, to date, housed a single guest since their acquisitions.

But at the moment Dennis, and much of the Tobago tourism industry have been buoyed by the recent announcement by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley that the borders could potentially reopen in less than two months.

Dennis told the Business Guardian that the news was met with a sense of relief by the people of Tobago, who have seen their major industry come to a screeching halt due to the border closure.

The island had been given a slight boost by domestic tourism earlier this year, but that too was put on pause due to recently increased restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think persons are more or less relieved since there appears to be light at the end of tunnel. Of course as you would know, Tobago’s Tourism sector was devastated by this pandemic. So it really gives us hope at this point in time,” he said.

The Chief Secretary said that the island was already in process of putting things in place to ensure the return of tourism is a smooth ride.

“In terms of plans, as we speak, we are putting a committee in place to review all the processes to ensure that the necessary protocols and systems are in place to facilitate a safe and smooth reopening when the time comes. Because of course, these will not be normal circumstances. COVID-19 has really forced us or pushed us into operating on the new normal guidelines,” Dennis said.

He explained that the Tobago Tourism Agency has been reaching out to various airlines to ensure that when the green light for the border re-opening is given, the flights won’t take too long to land at the ANR Robinson Airport.

“The Tobago Tourism Agency, as they have been doing over the past few months, they will continue and intensify discussions with flights to ensure that we could have those resume when time comes. Of course, marketing arrangements would also intensify, we have been doing soft marketing even throughout the lockdown period. Just to ensure that the destination remained relevant and at the front of the minds of persons in our source markets,” he said.

When the tourists come, they will be coming to a far more accommodating Tobago, as Dennis said significant steps have been taken since the border closure. He explained that the government grant to allow for renovations to hotels and guest houses had been used by 124 properties while the THA has done work on developing sites and attractions. “They utilised that funding to improve their facilities and their offerings. So that is expected to cause an overall improvement to the quality of the room stock and facilities on the island,” he said, “In addition to that, we have also been working on improving our sights and attractions. We have been able to facilitate some repairs and improvements. In addition to that, we have been able to initiate some new projects as it relates to the tourism friendly spaces. So a number of them are still ongoing and we’re hoping to have them completed within the next three months.”

Those projects which are still ongoing include work on the Buccoo boardwalk as well as development of the Charlotteville beachfront and Little Rockly Bay.

Plans for improvement are also in place in Tobago’s capital Scarborough in and around the I Love Tobago sign with adjustments also planned for Milford Road to aid in the facilitation of Crew ship arrivals. However Dennis sought to address something else about Tobago’s Tourism sector: Customer service.

“While the focus would be on more the infrastructural things we expecting to launch by next month, customer service, a customer service training program and is going to be island-wide focused on tourism sector operatives. Persons involved in the service industry and island generally, that is expect to grossly improve our customer service on the island,” said Dennis, who explained that they had sought out the aid of the Singapore based group Uplifting Service to undertake this training.

The international entity will partner with the Tobago Tourism Agency and the Tobago Hospitality and Tourism Institute to provide the customer service training across the island.

Dennis said he was also looking forward to the redesigned ANR Robinson airport, which he said was ongoing but still two years away from completion.