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Re-Engineering the Tourism Plant
Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

by Stephen Kangal

The Tourism Industry of Trinidad and Tobago employs about 20,000 people and generates about $1.3 billion in revenue to the national coffers. It is our most lucrative invisible export industry. In Great Britain which is an industrialised and services-based economy tourism was in the late 80’s the largest employer and contributor to the economy oustripping the contribution of North Sea oil.

Trinidad and Tobago is inexorably diversifying itself away from its historical dependency on the primary export –based sugar industry for employment-generating and foreign exchange earnings. At present T&T is blessed, and this is likely to be so for the foreseeable future, with windfall earnings from the gas –based industries. The BHP Billiton oil discovery on the East Coast will double our oil production.

The development of the tourism plant contributes enormously to employment and national income. It is also serves as a catalyst for generating backward and forward linkages in the economy and most importantly helps to consolidate further the small business sector as the engine of growth in the economy as well as a mechanism for promoting the trickle down effect to achieve equity in the society.

The availability of adequate and suitable hotel and other accommodation infrastructure is the principal pillar of any resort-based tourist industry. Accordingly the imperative for Trinidad and Tobago should the planned and sustained development of an all year round tourism industry founded on its niche market of sunseasand but complemented by marketing the uniqueness of the natural and cultural experiences and resources to maintain and/or increase hotel occupancy rates throughout the year. The aggressive marketing of the Caribbean’s most unique conglomerate of tourist attractions neatly and naturally packaged within an unspoilt space of two idyllic but small island domains while still marketing our niche sunseasand is the sine qua non for achieving a viable and sustainable industry. Carnival alone cannot justify large-scale hotel construction. Indeed Carnival is essentially a one- month Trinidad-based attraction that needs little or no marketing from a visitor’s perspective unless the tourism plant is re-tooled, re-engineered and expanded.

We must now embark in a very strategic and sustainable initiative to develop and expand our niche markets in eco-tourism and heritage and cultural tourism of which Carnival is the prime manifestation. T&T is a rich cultural pot pourri, physically attractive and endowed with majestic landscapes and sea-scapes and is a mystically alluring unique Caribbean destination. No other Caribbean destination can match the richness and wide diversity of our tourist attractions. These virgin, natural and unspoilt resources must be carefully and deliberately harnessed and culled from their dormancy and converted into national wealth to contribute to the economic transformation process of attaining First World status as so often articulated by Prime Ministers.

From a cultural perspective we can start the year after Carnival with the development and jazzing up of Phagwa or Holi. The colourful Indian festival is held in March and then proceed to the Easter programme celebrated in Tobago in April. The Best Village Folk Concerts can fill the May –June slot together with the Sugar and Energy Festival which is observed in this period as well. August can provide the attractions by way of the Great Race and the development of other water sports to cater for the summer exodus from North America and Europe. The Steel Band Festival and the Tobago Heritage Festival are also held in August. Ram Leelah, the arena type theatre and Divali, the glittering Festival of Lights can be the October-November attractions followed by Parang in December.

This can constitute the unique and glittering cultural necklace but creative costuming and innovations should embellish these festivals so that they can incrementally become popular poles of cultural attractions for tourists. In fact the modern growing trend in destination promotion involves not only the resort type facility but also an inter-active and learning environment provided by a network of cultural –heritage-environmental attractions which tourists can visit from their vacation resorts.

Simultaneous with the further development of the cultural and eco-tourism imperative, the proposed Prime Minister’s Sports Initiative (PMSI) spelled out by former Prime Minister Panday, represents a whole new scenario for increasing the hosting of sporting events in Trinidad and Tobago using the 5 new stadia and other infrastructure to be established. Sports-based tourism can help to fill the hotels and improve occupancy from a long -term perspective.

Trinidad and Tobago should also seriously address the question of transforming itself into the Conference Centre of the Caribbean and vigorously seek to influence large trans-national corporations, NGO’s, UN Agencies, Inter-Governmental Organisations to hold their conferences/ meetings here by aggressive and sustained international and regional marketing. Accordingly Trinidad and Tobago in becoming the conference, sports, industrial, diplomatic, financial and information technology capital of the Caribbean will generate the density of traffic needed to sustain and supplement the traditional sunseasand tourist industry, fill the hotels, planes, taxis and the growing network of restaurants and mushrooming multicultural entertainment centres as well as contribute to Government’s prime economic objective of bringing the unemployment rate into single digits. The tourist industry is in fact the largest employer and world’s fastest growing industry.

The tourist industry notably that which is based on the resort -type marine environment is essentially a fragile and extremely sensitive industry subject to major interruptions and dislocations from sudden and unforeseen health problems such as the foot and mouth disease in Britain, marine pollution/ disasters, political instability, crime and civil unrest. Strategic planning demands that a balanced development strategy should be adopted in Trinidad and Tobago to insulate one part of the industry from the unforeseen problems that may beset the other especially the marine-based sector. While Tobago is overwhelmingly dependent on sunseasand, one major maritime disaster, such as that which in 1979 almost threatened to destroy the pollution sensitive eco-systems and other marine resources on which the industry is based, can set back the industry for several years and result in sudden economic and social dislocation.

Trinidad should be the host for sports, eco-tourism, business travellers, conference facilities and the cruise ship industry. Cultural tourism will be shared with Tobago.

T&T cannot and should not attempt to match the $50M spent by Barbados and Jamaica in destination promotions because tourism is the principal foreign exchange earner for these two Caribbean economies. We also have to look after oil and gas industries. Our economy is more diversified and broadly based. I see that a budget of $44 m shared between Government ($30 m) and the private sector ($14m) will fund the Marketing Plan for Tourism for the period 2001-2003.

Trinidad and Tobago Missions abroad should now serve as strategic platforms for launching our international tourism initiatives in our new enlightened, value-for-money marketing thrust to be conducted overseas. Unlike our Caricom partners Jamaica and Barbados our demarche must be carefully crafted, segmented and not broadcast but focussed and well targeted. We can in the interest of economy and effectiveness piggy back on overseas Carnival audiences, use the assistance of our willing ex-patriate communities abroad, use personal value-for-money participation at selected Travel and Tourism Fairs Overseas, organise effective Seminars/Familiarisation Tours for Travel Agents to be conducted in co-operation with our Missions. We do not need to and should not compete with our Caricomrades and undertake traditional mass tourism promotions because of the small size of our plant. The cost of undertaking mass electronic media promotions in metropolitan centres is almost prohibitive. Capsule marketing is preferred and will be less expensive and stretch the budget of $44M.

In collaboration with our overseas missions based in London, Toronto, Ottawa and New York initiatives should be undertaken with Cultural and Sports Clubs, schools and other entities situated in the respective countries with a view to increasing visits to T&T consisting of parents, children and sportsmen in groups during the school breaks using our diverse base of natural, heritage and cultural resources to drive the momentum. We can help to get back JMC and retain Condor on the Tobago route if only the Ministry of Tourism in collaboration with our High Commission in London, which is also accredited to Germany, can designate one officer who can work exclusively with the travel agents/BWIA/Monarch Airlines/ JMC/BA in London and other cities aggressively selling and intensively promoting the Tobago destination vacation packages. This strategy is less expensive and a more viable proposition than the 50% risk sharing arrangement agreed with Barbados in respect of Condor/Monarch Airlines and more productive for T&T from a long- term destination development, promotion and management perspectives.

The T&T High Commission in London should of yesterday now seek to work closely with our destination BWIA and Monarch Airlines in London for the reasons stated above to avoid other airlines invoking the precedent setting subsidised fuel arrangement agreed by the Minister of Energy in favour of the two European airlines mentioned above. BWIA can legitimately claim a right to access the subsidised fuel arrangement because it is the destination airline not only for T&T but also for the Caribbean.

The fuel subsidy is a Pandora’s Box to be avoided.

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