(Trinidad Express) Low tourist arrivals and occupancy, trending downward in the last three years, have combined with other factors to make a perfect storm that is creating havoc on Tobago’s tourism industry, squeezing the life out of the hotel business and the island’s economy.
Traditional visitors from the United Kingdom, Germany and other parts of Europe have cut back on travel because of the downturn in the global economy. And recent cancellations of flights because of snow at main-hub airports like Heathrow has badly affected the tourist figures in this current high season.
Some hoteliers are calling it the worst high season in 30 years, noting that some spin-off industries and businesses have already shut down and warning that more were set to close doors if the economy does not turn around soon.
Rachel McSween, resident manager at the up-market Coco Reef hotel in Store Bay, said the decline has been steady over the last three years.
“Tourist arrivals are down considerably, we are suffering quite a bit,” she said, adding that visitors whose flights have been delayed are either cancelling completely or shortening their stays from three weeks to a few days in some cases.
She noted that even with some increase in domestic travel from Trinidad, this too is now characterised by shorter stays.
Occupancy levels at Coco Reef declined by 30 per cent from 2007 to 2008 and for 2009 took another 30 per cent dip. The same held true for 2010.
“The trend has been a steady decline,” said McSween, noting, too, that one reason Trinidad customers were cancelling bookings was because of the traditional peak season problem of inadequate flights and ferry seats.
The sea bridge problem is not expected to get better anytime soon either as the T&T Express is expected to sent to drydock in South Carolina for its yearly maintenance checks from January 1, the peak of the Tobago high season. The ferry will be out of action for some four to six weeks.
McSween said Coco Reef, like other hotels in Tobago, was struggling to find the right balance among fixed operational costs and maintaining a quality product and standards against lower revenue streams.
“Not necessarily for us in the short term, but if this type of situation continues, we have to consider the viability of the destination and our interest in it… we have fared well to date, but it’s a struggle to maintain our overall business,” she said.
Kariwak Village’s owner, Alan Clovis, said he was inching up to the 65 per cent occupancy mark (compared to Kariwak’s usual 88 per cent to 96 per cent for this period), the point where he would be able to break even. Last month, the hotel’s occupancy level was 40 per cent compared to 75 per cent for November last year, he said.
“I have been open since 1982 and never has this sort of thing taken place, even after the coup. You can’t blame crime alone because crime is a global phenomenon and other countries are not being affected like us,” he said.
“It’s a failure on the part of stakeholders to have promoted an investment approach to destination marketing. The way in which the money has been spent, the State—by that, I mean the THA, the Ministry of Tourism and the TDC (Tourism Development Company)—has not partnered with the private sector to have the kind of impact where people can identify Tobago,” he contended.
Clovis, who employs a staff of 45, said the THA, TDC and the private sector in Tobago needed to pool resources to create a public relations campaign with strong visual and audio media impact in their mainstay European markets.
He said the THA needed to do an analysis of the money spent on promoting the island and the return on that investment. Clovis said the Government and its tourist arms needed to humble themselves and invest now.
“We have not selected people with voice or image to represent our country and Tobago. We spend money and pay for people and go to booths and stand up and eat food in places like India and China. We won’t be able to compete against the likes of Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and Grenada,” he said.
He said while occupancy was down throughout the Caribbean at an average of 65 per cent, Tobago’s hotels were averaging 20 per cent to 25 per cent.
“We are totally out of the picture… I believe marketing investment has to be done on a timely basis. For us that was five years ago. Not now when horse has bolted out of the stable,” he said, adding that he did not know how some businesses were still open despite mounting unpaid utility and distributors’ bills.
Clovis said Tobago must increase the amount of rooms available on the island with the completion of the Vanguard project and the Radisson Crown Reef. Clovis said he agreed with the new Caribbean Airlines (CAL) flight between Tobago and New York and said the THA and Government needed to invest in code-sharing agreements to tap into the CAL network with cities on the US west coast, mid west, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and Toronto, Canada, to open up “all kinds of investment opportunities”.
“We are in crisis and we have to acknowledge it’s serious. It’s a bit late, we got to be a serious I think in adversity there is opportunity, but people have to put aside the pride and we have to understand there are certain things that make us competitive.
“If money wasn’t coming from Trinidad, it would be even worse. We have to take a different attitude to tourism investments,” he said.
Carol Ann Birchwood James, president of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association (THTA) and manager of the Canoe Bay Hotel, identified the new green tax in the UK, a £100 additional fee on an economy class ticket, as another reason tourist arrivals were down.
She said the authorities, including the THA and the Government only settled on the £100 rebate in November, a rebate the other Caribbean islands conceded in June and July.
Birchwood-James agreed with Clovis that Trinidad and Tobago was also not as visible as the other Caribbean islands in the traditional markets.
Caribbean Trade Organisation figures show Barbados spent on US$50 million on direct media marketing this year, while St Lucia spent US$18 million. T&T spent US$12 million in direct media marketing. And while Jamaica keeps their numbers close to the chest, that country’s premier hotelier, Butch Reynalds dished out US$80 million in 2010 for advertising and promotion for his Sandals chain brand.
“It’s cold now over there and tour operators in Europe are not recommending Tobago… we have been sleeping on the job and have not been as effective as we should have been,” said Birchwood James, noting that the Caribbean was the most tourism-dependent economy in the world.
Birchwood-James said Tobago was able to slow the tourism bleed with local tourists from Trinidad, but she said it was “all about education”: “We have to let people know tourism is a very viable business, not like a pastime… sensitise people as to how tourism employs a lot of people and is one of fastest growing industries worldwide,” she said.
Executive director at Le Grand Courlan Spa Resort and the Grafton Beach Resort in Black Rock, Nalini Galbaransingh says, the hotel is down 60 per cent to 70 per cent down in terms of occupancy.
“It’s been a very difficult for the Grafton. It has been the worst season on record,” she said. The resort was closed for 18 months for repairs and upgrades since January 2009.
Galbaransingh, a member of the THTA marketing committee, said the THTA had funded road shows and written a book, Tobago Naturally, and mounted some regional and international campaigns to attempt to attract visitors to the island.
On an individual basis, she said she was using linkages with Travelocity and Expedia as well as social websites like Facebook, YouTube and Linked to get the word out about her facility and service. And in terms of coping with costs, she has started a prayer circle with her staff and covered her employees’ pay until December 31.
Regina Dumas, owner of Cuffie River Nature Retreat in Castara, voiced sentiments similar to the other hoteliers.
“The year has not been good at all. And this Christmas is not like it normally is, when we have a full house… We have no bookings until the January 5,” said Dumas.
She believed the private sector and THA must to come together to ensure struggling hotels, guest houses and resorts secure low-interest short-term loans to upgrade their properties.
The THA’s stimulus plan, which provides hoteliers and restaurateurs with a 25 per cent rebate after they fork out the sum up front, can’t work either, said Dumas, since people don’t have that capital to begin with.
“This is an opportunity for people to say we can focus on the product we have now and upgrade and market it properly. If we can’t sort out how we market what we have now, it makes no sense to focus on other aspects,” she said.