--Randall Mitchell

The Minister of Tourism and the recently-appointed Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) have affirmed that the disbursements coming from the $50 million pandemic relief grant to hoteliers will not be wasted.

In an interview with the Sunday Business Guardian, Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell told of the guidelines and criteria that hoteliers would have to meet to access the grant funding.

“They will put in there some serious safeguards to prevent people from buying a car or paying for their children’s tuition. You know we understand those things. We know of those experiences in the decades past,” Mitchell said.

The grant will be disbursed to provide employment and room-stock upgrades to the hotels, bed and breakfast resorts and other small properties.

THA Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis, who reinforced what Mitchell echoed.

Dennis said: “We remain committed to ensuring that the taxpayers dollars are utilised efficiently and, therefore, a clear procedure has been put in place to manage the disbursement and implementation of the grant.”

This comes in light of bad investments and allegations of fund misappropriation in Tobago.

In 2019, the BG reported that $32 million was spent on two properties in Tobago—Manta Lodge and Sanctuary Resort—but it never welcomed a guest.

In another 2019 report, former Chief Secretary Kelvin Charles also argued that there are hotels in the industry losing hundreds of millions of dollars.

With all of these losses on the back of tourism, it begs the question: is this why the Government has not really put much emphasis and more spending on the tourism industry?

Of the $3.2 billion in estimated recurrent expenditure for Tobago in 2020, the $392.6 million allocated to tourism, culture and transportation accounts for 12 per cent. Moreover, the currently estimated expenditure for transfers and subsidies allocated to Tobago Tourism is $274.2 million—and this while the estimated revenue to be generated by Tobago is $215.7 million.

Additionally, the newly-established Tobago Tourism Agency Ltd (TTAL) recorded a net profit of $19.5 million for 2018 and a loss of $1 million last year.

The TTAL’s marketing expenses for last year was $17.2 million compared to $1.8 million in 2018.

Mitchell noted that he was confident that the grant funding would go where it was intentioned.

When speaking of the safeguards, he said because they are implemented, many would always complain about the slow pace or the bureaucracy involved in the process.

He articulated, however, “The bureaucracy is necessary because you have to ensure that the safeguards are there so that people don’t just take the money and fetch it away.”

Dennis highlighted the process of these safeguards. He said that a technical group comprised of staff from the TTAL and the division of tourism, culture and transportation will interact with stakeholders and receive applications along with a scope of works, proof of operations and other requirements.

According to Dennis, “An Evaluation Committee comprising a cross-section of THA Departments will evaluate the applications and an independent auditor will review and verify works undertaken by the properties as per agreement.”

While Dennis did not want to comment on allegations of state funds being used for personal business without evidence, he said that recipients of the grant would be required to enter into a legal contract.

He said that contract would stipulate that if the funds are not used for the purpose for which they have been approved, they are to reimburse the amounts in full to TTAL. Mitchell added that there was a similar process under the Ministry of Tourism’s Tourism Accommodation Upgrade Program (TAUP).

TAUP is an incentive programme that provides a reimbursable grant for approved upgrade work done to accommodation facilities.

The minister noted that after inspections are done and checks are made, an auditing firm is hired to report on what is done.

He said: “Once those things are not done and somebody takes the money and they fridge it away, the Ministry takes legal action.”

According to the TTAL’s unaudited financial statement for the year ended September 30, 2019—its product development expenses comprised mainly of the TAUP and the T&T Tourism Industry Certification (TTTIC).

The TAUP amounted to $381,401.38 whereby three accommodation properties received grants for approved upgrade work done to accommodation facilities.

The TTIC amounted to $349,396.29 which mainly reflected payment to the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards for the payment of the Service Level Agreement for mobilisation fees.

Dennis said that he welcomes the grant at this time. He remarked that the competitiveness of our tourism sector is highly dependent on the quality of accommodation properties and the grant would ensure business continuity, upgrades and enhanced competitiveness for the hotel sector post-COVID-19.

He said that the pandemic has given the island and industry an opportunity to undertake much-needed improvements.

It also gives the hoteliers and resort owners the ability to ensure that their properties adhere to the voluntary regulations that are in place to ensure a certain level of quality and safety is established at the island’s tourism properties.