By Raffique Shah
October 23, 2011
I WAS not surprised that Tourism Minister Rupert Griffith was all excited over Trinidad and Tobago “winning” a “best destination 2012” award from a Romania-based organisation that seems to be as genuine as a three-dollar bill. Griffith does not strike me as being a particularly bright person, his doctorate notwithstanding.
What shocked me was Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s unqualified endorsement of the award. Really, is the PM so naive? She must know that in tourism we are not even in the minor league. Indeed, Carnival aside, we would have fewer foreign visitors to this twin-island republic than those who choose to visit crime-ridden Guyana, volcano-hit Montserrat or pancake-flat, tiny Saba.
But there was our PM hosting some dubious-looking characters at the Hyatt, giving thanks to them for bestowing an honour on this country, and proclaiming tourism as a major platform for our future development. By coincidence, I browsed through Government’s Medium-Term Policy Framework and noted there was little reference to the tourism sector.
Let me try to put our tourism in some perspective. According to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), this country hosted 158,000 visitors between January and May 2010. If we assume a steady flow throughout the year, we may have had around 400,000 visitors last year. In contrast, Barbados welcomed 532,000 visitors, the Bahamas 1.3 million, Jamaica 1.9 million, Cuba 2.5 million and the Dominican Republic 4.1 million.
Last July, I pointed out in an article that tiny St Maarten (37 sq mls) hosted 400,000 visitors, almost all of them staying at hotels. Most of our arrivals (300,000, CSO data, 2008) stay at private homes—suggesting they are from the diaspora. And while St Maarten surpassed 1.5 million cruise passenger visits in 2010, we would have been lucky to have had 15,000!
Against this gloomy tourism background, enter the dubious European Council on Tourism and Trade, a non-profit organisation based in Bucharest, Romania (try to locate it on a map!), telling Griffith and the Prime Minister our country is the most exciting destination in 2012. If there is one thing I know about Romania, it is the homeland of Gypsies, who are notorious for fortune telling.
So this bogus body peers into the future and sees Trinidad and Tobago overhauling not just our Caribbean neighbours who are miles ahead of us, but trumping the whole damn world in 2012. Yeah… and pigs will fly…
The gullibility of our politicians never ceases to amaze me. How many readers remember Basdeo Panday as PM in 1999, hosting the Miss Universe contest? Panday wined and dined billionaire Donald Trump, posed with near-naked “beauties”, and told us that Trump would plough hundreds of millions of dollars to develop one of the offshore islands into a tourist paradise.
If we’d held our breaths, we would all be dead and mummified by now! No Trump, no resort, not even a whiff from Donald’s exhaust.
Then big-thinker (try that with a lisp!) Patrick Manning committed hundreds of millions of our money to host two major international conferences—Summit of the Americas and Commonwealth Heads. His reasoning was that we could not measure the benefits that would accrue to the country, the trade-gates that would open.
Manning locked down the natives for the duration of those conferences. Opulence was the order of the day. Champagne, not local rum, flowed. Two years later, we are still paying the bills, with not a damn dollar in returns from those conferences.
Readers would understand why I am angry with Griffith for making fools of us all. He said Government spent nothing on the Hyatt bash to celebrate our status as the world’s number one destination, but I have my doubts. “Lochos” invariably “sponge” off gullible government officials, and by extension, taxpayers. We pay. They play.
News reports stated that in the Council’s debate over which country should be given the 2012 award (Cuba and Nigeria were the other “competitors”), Dr Anton Caragea presented a paper titled—wait for it—”Trinidad and Tobago, A Success Story in Tourism”. This man and his fellow councillors need to have their heads, brains all their body parts carefully examined. They must be Gypsies-gone-crazy.
The madness does not end there, however. Caragea spoke in glowing terms about our “festivals tourism”, citing Holi (Phagwa), Hosay, Corpus Christi, Eid-ul-Fitr, Divali and Carnival. Other than Carnival, who the hell travels to Trinidad for Phagwa, Hosay or Corpus Christi?
As someone who used to attend Hosay in St James annually, I can tell you not even people in that district patronise the parade of tadjahs nowadays. Except for devout Catholics, Corpus Christi is like a corpse. As for Divali, the only “tourists” we have are city folks who flock to Felicity, and locals who patronise the Divali Nagar.
Clearly, Griffith wants to appear to be busy promoting this country as a destination. Nothing is wrong with that, except for all the initiatives he and his team have thus far undertaken. A few months ago, a large contingent sauntered off to India to tap into that market. Other than Indian investors who may have an interest in setting up business here, what do Indians know of, or care about, Trinidad and Tobago? That was a costly exercise in futility.
The Minister and Tidco officials are doing the same things the last government did, and the one before that, none of which boosted tourism. Bogus awards will not help: innovative thinking may.