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Cool Runnings, one of the glass-bottomed boats operating tours to the Buccoo Reef, Nylon Pool and No Man’s Land, docked at Store Bay, Tobago, recently.

Tourism stakeholders are anticipating an increase in visitors to Tobago for the Easter weekend.

However, the recently-installed ticketing system for the Buccoo Reef tours at Store Bay has crashed and the touts who previously ruled the beachfront have returned.

Visitors to Store Bay have reported feeling “frightened” after being approached by strange men in the carpark, as touting has resumed. While boat owners say the system is neither practical nor sustainable, Tobago House of Assembly Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis, who piloted the ticketing system, says he is not prepared to accept disorder.

A recent visitor to Store Bay, who is from South Trinidad, shared what she described as a “traumatic” experience.

“My friend and I come to Tobago often and we love Store Bay but when we came a young man approached us as soon as we came out of the car. We were a little frightened because with everything going on now we don’t know if we were being robbed, or kidnapped, so we were frightened,” the woman, who did not want to be identified, said.

She said they felt relieved when they were only asked if they were interested in boat tours.

“I know Tobago is safer than Trinidad in many regards but you never know, we were happy with the ticketing system because it’s more organised but I don’t know why they stopped it.”

While Guardian media was at the beach facility, two separate people approached a vehicle offering tickets for Buccoo Reef tours, which beachgoers were directed to by a tout. The tout was asked if the THA ticketing system was no longer in place.

The young man said, “Well yeah but you will have to wait a while and we going now!”

Contacted yesterday, Buccoo Reef Boat Tour Operators Association PRO Michael Frank admitted the the ticket system “fell apart.” He added he was not even sure if his position as PRO of the association was still applicable as the body may or may not still exist.

“Right now there are a lot of boats operating tours to Buccoo Reef and when we adhered to the ticketing system it would take us like a week and a half to two weeks to get a trip because we have more boats than visitors and that is not sustainable,” Frank said, noting that experience was troubling.

Noting that boat owners had banks “breathing down their necks” and mounting losses in addition to families and staff to take care of, Frank said the system also broke down because a few of the larger operators, including himself, have been in business for a number of years and they would have established relationships with clients who request their services when they visit the island.

“It’s not a clear cut case of who next in line gets the service. For instance, I invest heavily in advertising and standardising my operations to ensure quality service and repeat business, so clients call and book with me, so you will find I cannot adhere to the ticketing system.”

A number of boat owners also own guest houses and the tour is also a part of the package being offered, he said. Frank admitted some tour some operators had gone back to approaching people at the carpark and the beach as a way “to at least get something out of the little that is left.”

However, he said he believes once the borders are reopened “there would be some ease” and the system may be able to work because they have been getting calls from international clients who want to come to Tobago.

When contacted yesterday, Dennis expressed surprise at the development, noting he was unaware that the system had broken down. He said the only way for the system to work is if the stakeholders understand what is at stake and read the riot act to the tour operators.

“I am not prepared to sit by and allow them to operate in ways that are deleterious to our tourism product,” Dennis said, adding that “stronger action will be taken.”

In July 2020, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the THA and the Store Bay Reef Operators Association after the country’s beaches were re-opened after the COVID-19 lockdown. The MOU formalised an arrangement where registered Bucco Reef Marine Park tour operators would utilise a turn system through the issue of tickets to visitors.

The Buccoo Reef Marine Park User Policy was championed by Dennis, who pledged to put an end to touting to ensure the site was properly utilised, protected and sustainably managed to ensure visitor safety, financial sustainability and ecological protection.

During the commissioning ceremony for the refurbished ticketing booth at Store Bay, Dennis had said, “We must ensure that we continue to collaborate, provide the requisite leadership and remain united. More than our own personal agendas, we must always ensure that we see the bigger picture, which is Tobago.”

This is not the first time a regulatory system implement at the beach facility has fallen apart. In 2011, then Chief Secretary Orville London launched the Tobago Coral Reef Operators Limited there. However, instead of an association, there was company made up of all boat operators who conducted tours to Buccoo Reef from Store Bay and the Pigeon Point Heritage Park. That too did not last very long.