Sandals saved Rowley

By Raffique Shah
January 23, 2019

Raffique ShahPrime Minister Dr Keith Rowley should thank the principals of Sandals for saving him from a fate worse than death. When the Butch Stewart-owned luxury resorts chain dispatched its CEO to announce its withdrawal from the three billion dollar (or whatever it would have cost) Tobago project, it provided a clean escape from infamy for the PM.

Like most informed observers and analysts—and here I exclude Rowley’s political opponents—I am convinced that negative publicity was not the reason for the Sandals pullout. I think it was a simple case of the arithmetic, the “sums” as we used to say when I attended primary school, not adding up correctly. And if Sandals, which was not contributing one Jamaican cent to the capital cost of the project, lending only its name, or brand in business-speak, and instead, stood to make tens of millions of US dollars per year in management fees, calculated that it was not worth the while, think of the fallout for Rowley from irate taxpayers of Trinidad & Tobago had he ploughed their money into it.

It was a horror story waiting to unfold, so Sandals not only withdrew itself, but it rescued Rowley from shame, maybe political death, for which the PM should be eternally grateful.

To start before the beginning, coining my own phrases, there were already rumblings from the environmentalists over the site selected that were sure to end up in the courts, lasting months, maybe years, going all the way to the Privy Council in the UK. If the construction phase eventually got off the ground, unless Government hired a Chinese contractor with workers and managers from China, and maybe allowed illegal Venezuelans on the site, Rowley might have seen his dream resort when he was an old man, if he lived to see it.

Hell, it took what, fifteen years to build a scaled-down Scarborough hospital that is still not equipped to handle all Tobagonians’ health problems. For 25 years or longer, government after government promised Tobago a decent airport terminal. Also, WASA has been working to rectify the island’s water woes for decades and they have little to show for all the wells drilled and reservoirs upgraded.

Consider, too, the horrors of transporting construction materials and equipment from Trinidad to Tobago via a sea-bridge that is erratic at best, and non-functional all too often. Clearly, Butch Stewart saw an obstacle course lined with jeering, cantankerous ‘Gonians and Trinis, mined with political booby traps, and decided he wanted out.

Still, if there was the prospect of a bonanza lying beyond the gauntlet, he might have still pursued Rowley’s dream. After all, he must be one tough cookie to have built the multi-billion-dollar Sandals empire, the only Caribbean brand that has made its mark on the world stage…well, after Bob Marley.

But the sums just weren’t adding up.

You see, the perception that a Sandals resort could act as a catalyst for Tobago’s tourism sector, hence the island’s economy, is an illusion. When Tobagonians know that they are constitutionally entitled to four percent of the country’s annual budgetary expenditure, what motivation is there for them to want to work in the hospitality industry where one must work, not “lahay” on the job? Sandals’ officials who visited the island on several occasions must have noted that aversion to work, the tendency to associate service with servitude.

This attitude must have partly informed their decision to steer clear of Paradise Lost. Such turn-offs would sully Sandals’ reputation as the ultimate holiday experience, and negatively impact its attraction that spans the world.

If Paradise got lost somewhere back in time, all is not lost with tourism in Tobago, once we come to grips with the stark realities of the industry. It is seen as one of the growth poles of the global economy, contributing approximately four percent of GDP. The Caribbean has improved its share of the pie, attracting approximately 30 million stay-over visitors annually, 27 million cruise-line passengers. Tourist spend was estimated at US $37 billion in 2017, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation.

Two points to note: T&T is way down the ladder in tourist arrivals (412,000 in 2014) in contrast to many of the smaller islands: Aruba (one million, pop 165,000), the Bahamas (1.5 million, pop 395,000), Curacao (450,000, pop 160,000), St Maarten (500,000, pop 40,000).

Per capita, these destinations, and others, are way ahead of T&T, and if one extracts Tobago’s numbers, they are grimmer (I heard someone say international arrivals for this high season thus far was around 24,000). Sandals cannot magically multiply those numbers, nor can the airport and sea-bridge facilities shoulder most of the blame. Many hoteliers keep whining over their plight of low occupancy, but do nothing to upgrade or promote their businesses.

The second point I raise is this: given our heavy dependence on imported goods, especially food and beverages, we are a prime candidate for leakage of foreign currency generally, but especially in tourism. Several studies have shown where and how small island developing states lose an average of 65 cents on every dollar earned.

Had the Sandals Tobago deal been sealed, the resort would have had to pay the parent company hefty fees, in US dollars, for use of name and management of the facilities. It would also pay, in foreign currency, the salaries of all management and other personnel hired by Sandals. Similar contracts exist with Hyatt and Hilton International.

So while there is nothing wrong with pursuing tourism, especially in Tobago, we must be mindful of the many pitfalls in the industry. Losing Sandals may well be a blessing undisguised: let the private sector own and operate such enterprises.

13 Responses to “Sandals saved Rowley”


  • Oh, Oh. I may be wrong but what I hear from Raffique Shah’s piece is that tourism succeeds in certain islands where the people of Aruba, the Bahamas, St. Marten, etc. are hard working and industrious while it fails in Tobago where the people have an “aversion to work, the tendency to associate service with servitude.” In other words: “dey lazy” and like to “lahay.” So even if the “private sector own and operate such enterprises” they will surely fail because of the lazy Tobago people. What nonsense.

    • wrong Mike-When they work for private enterprise they have to perform or they get fired and replaced-Eventually they will give the jobs to other islanders and tobagonians will lose out-last year i went to the casino in crown point hotel to spend some time gambling-there were 4 locals there are 3 employees-While i was there the locals (who were friends of the employees) were cursing each other loudly and the employees were also joining in -Out of the 20 machines they had,only 8 were working-these people can deal with tourists?

      • Again these Tobago haters are trying to badmouth Tobagonians. Sandals is one of the world’s premier tourism brands. It operates in many Caribbean countries successfully. The UNC sabotaged it, they took the food out the mouths of Tobagonians. Tobagonians should never forget that.

  • Brother Shah, your last articles have really been on spot, this one is no different . I commented on one of your previous column , saying that this year might be Telling , politically . yes, Sandals did save Dr Rowley’s political future some what , but might still be in deep waters as Venezuela continue to unravel. The Sandals brand was asking for what Trinidad cannot deliver presently , free land, power, proper infrastructure plus a full Pot of free goodies , these are some of the conditions put on the table by Brand Sandals . In the name of economic development , the noose is pulled tighter suffocating the Will . We as a people need to stand up and have straight in your face talk on work ethic , years of much , have leave in its wake true dishonesty , this level of ineptness is resonated in all aspects from top to ground .The conscientious ones are far and few , real madness , is it possible to build a society on this foundation ? Jamaican farmers supply Sandals with the produce needed which is A+ , Trinidad is laced up with foreign food items , their Strip Malls is all it is , Strip USA franchises masquerading as economic development, is this sustainable ?.

  • I don’t know if Shah’s article is a brilliant double entendre on the incompetence and perverse stupidity of Trinbagonians, sharing bullpistle left, right and centre to all those Trinbagonians who seem to have a penchant for shooting themselves in the foot, cutting off their nose to spite their face, being their worst enemy, making an ass of themselves, etc; or if Shah, in his old age, has become a hack for Kamla, a stooge for “all ah we go rise” tanty Kam, a caddy boy like Duke for the UNC moneymen. Whatever interpretation, Shah has written a whole article on hypotheticals. He might have well written something on if wishes were horses, or if pigs could fly, or if the UNC could tell the truth, or if Kamla could drink and not fall into the fountain, or if Moonilal could make sense. Things like that. Hypothetical. Rudy Giuliani, who was New York’s mayor during the 9/11 tragedy, was quite respected for how he handled those traumatic times. Recently he has stated that he fears his gravestone will read: He lied for Trump. Shah, has been one of the few people who have appeared to have acted and written with integrity over the years. Recently however, I am worried that his legacy may be: He lied for Kamla. I hope not. I will give him the benefit of the doubt this time.

  • Jamaicans never liked Trinis since the one from ten leaves nought statement by the Doc, master of shit talk. They always considered us a dot in the Atlantic ocean. And Calypso was always better music than Regae. They were the real slaves to the white man in the Caribbean and their world ganga image and the Caribbean bad john image never helped their economy. Added to this they never had persons of world worth in their history. So this Sandals man is nothing but an exploiter. Hence good riddance to bad rubbage.

  • where were you before sandal left, why didn’t you or other pnm supports tell your great leader he has no business sense to run a county and make deals with big companies, but now that sandal left he’s ok and saved HE CANNOT RUN A COUNTRY AND THSI IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE

  • Mr. Shah you have the reputation to call a spade a spade through objective reporting and expressing personal views. In the past you have reported the damning of thinking mega projects by the policy makers which seems to be our downfall even when the market indictors show; such is unwarranted. Case in point; the Bakers Yeast project ear marked at the Fermentation complex in Caroni. I said let’s do it as an incremental process from our existing expertise and technology in house starting at 5000 tpa. Government said NO, let’s do it as a 500,000 tpa under the Red Starr brand from Australia using a batch process. The plant would have produced the Caribbean market size in 2 weeks and sit idle for the rest of the year.

    We have failed ourselves so many times in thinking and acting out ‘big’ by disrespecting the talent we have in house and who knows, give us some time some Europeans or Japanese may show us how to play melodious steelpan and mas-produce as well. Or, the bigger the project the bigger the sidelining fiscally for lined pockets.

  • Tourism always decline when the PNM in power. To date they are only blaming the UNC when Manning waste more tax dollars than anyone else. Oil price was high and cost over run for projects ran into the billions. Enter Rowley and his gang with similar budgets if not higher with nothing to show. Whilst they claim the UNC waste the money, there are projects all over the nation with UNC signature many 90% complete but remains that way.

    To date Rowley has not built one school whilst the UNC claim to have build and renovated 100.

    Tourism is really easy money. A tourism comes he wants a nice beach, food and drinks. And maybe a visit to some historical sites. I have been to Cuba, great for beaches and history, Mexico, great for beaches and food. Costa Rica great beaches, adventure sites, Jamaica not so great beaches, and reasonable food. Dominican Republic, cheap, good beaches and great for food. Usually these places have more white people as visitors. My last trip was in Dominican Republic in a mosquito laden room which we eventually changed.

    What does Trinidad have to offer? Okay beaches, pitch lake, lots of volcanoes etc. The truth is Trinidad has a lot to offer. But it requires a thrust to develop and market these sites. In Penal there are at least 3 volcanic sites. Tourist love mud volcanoes to go and take a dip. But I am sure the tourism minister don’t know that. Then there is the pitch lake that has sunken over 200 feet due to million of tons of asphalt taken out and sold abroad. The UNC was building the Point Fortin Highway which would have been completed and used as a means to access some of these tourist sites.

    The long and short of it is there has to be a greater understanding of tourism in order to develop it. Starting with the taxi man from the airport and the tourism minister understanding and identifying possible tourist sites and destinations!

  • Point is the UNC and their media hacks took bread out of the mouths of Tobagonians. Sandals could have made Tobago self-sufficient, the UNC an their media hacks drove Sandals away. Bad publicity, lies, misinformation drove Sandals away. No SEA creative writing could change that fact.

  • Anyone who believes that Sandals would have made Tobago self-sufficient is misguided, uninformed and really has no understanding of Tobago affairs.
    Tobago presently has several large hotel resorts, some all-inclusive, which are failing or struggling to survive. Grafton and Grand Courland resorts are examples of hotels which offer a wide range of experiences to the tourist. They are struggling with perennial high vacancy rates.
    Tobago does not attract repeat visitors except for a small number of foreigners interested in eco-tourism. At one time flights were coming in from Germany, London and New York. These routes became unprofitable, primarily because tourists were not repeating visits or recommending Tobago to friends and family overseas. The Condor flights drawing tourists from the Scandinavian countries also failed.
    Many do not realize that all airlines making trips directly to Tobago including BA and Sunwing are heavily subsidized by government, in other words the T&T government is indirectly paying for every empty seat on airlines to Tobago.
    Presently, Sunwing is trying to get the government to pay for the refurbishing of the former Turtle Beach hotel, a failing enterprise which Sunwing acquired.
    How could Sandals improve tourism in Tobago? Sandals are in tourism for the perpetuation and profitability of their own brand. They are not social workers. They are most willing to acquire the most pristine and eco-sensitive areas in Tobago and facilitate the destructive construction of a resort at the expense of the taxpayers of T&T.
    Presently in any establishment in Tobago, service is sadly lacking. Tobagonians are unwilling to serve. Tobago behaves like Trinidad’s spoiled child with arms outstretched annually trying to have their monetary allocation increased. Ease of life and infra-structure in Tobago is far superior to most areas of Trinidad where per capita spending is very much lower than in Tobago.
    Tobago has to ask and answer one very important question.
    Why are visitors unwilling to return after their first visit?

  • Another SEA creative writing story. You guys are just BS and making it up as you go along. You obviously know nothing about tourism. Sandals draws in billions in other Caribbean countries. “Tobago behaves like Trinidad’s spoiled child” What nonsense.

  • I think Raffique Shah is entirely correct in his suggestion that the Sandals Project was abandoned because of economic reasons. Not sure why some commentators on this article want to blame the UNC for this fiasco when it was handled by the PNM head honcho himself.

    I have been to Tobago twice in my life. Once in 1964, when I stayed in Plymouth for approx 3 months with my brother who was involved in dredging the Courland River. At that time I left with a very positive impression of the island and its people.

    I visited again in 2012 and was very disappointed with the way my family and I were treated. From the car rental, to the gas station, to the restaurant in the hotel, service was poor and the staff were openly hostile and borderline racist. You would be standing in line to be served and the staff would ignore you. Not the kind of attitude that would encourage tourists to visit your country. Did the Sandals people sense this in their analysis?? Who knows.

    However I think it is unfair to condemn all Tobagonians because of the poor behaviour of a few individuals.

    Unfortunately for the less privileged Tobagonians the “Calcutta Ship” attitude is prevalent among the ruling class on the island and until this prejudiced world view is changed they will not be able to enjoy the benefits of a successful tourism sector.

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