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Tourism and the 2011 Budget
Posted: Monday, September 20, 2010

By Derren Joseph
September 20, 2010

In general, the budget provides an overview of the government's vision or direction. The entities responsible for implementation would speak to a more detailed strategic plan for achieving agreed objectives. Given my limited column space I will touch on three (3) critical points made by the Finance Minister.

Firstly, page 18 of the speech spoke about Sports Tourism. This reflects the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report for 2009 which highlighted the potential competitive advantage that Trinidad and Tobago enjoys in the area of sports tourism. Two weeks ago, I even mentioned the annual Tobago Cycling International Classic which takes TT$600k from sponsors and returns to our local economy TT$1.9 million on top of the TT$600k which is driven by accompanying fans and extended stays by the teams. So events like the Under 17 Women's World Cup could in the future include a comprehensive and well articulated tourism exploitation strategy to ensure the maximum return to the Tourism economy from such an event.

Secondly, page 23 of the speech spoke about "sustainable jobs" and the need to "increase the contribution of tourism to GDP". It went on to touch on "festivals and cultural diversity". T&T is diverse and we are missing the trick by not embracing all of who we are. Those in the industry know that we seem to have three (3) brands. There is Trinidad; there is Tobago; and there is Trinidad and Tobago. While it clear we have a competitive advantage in festivals and sports, the billion dollar question is how we effectively position all of T&T as a single brand. My thinking is that no (local or foreign) consultant can answer that question to everyone's satisfaction. The only viable solution is for all the key stakeholders (should this be driven by the new Tourism Standing Committee?) to retreat for a weekend (or more) and talk it through. I make no apologies for believing in the collective wisdom of our own people. We need to come up with this by ourselves and for ourselves.

Thirdly, page 23 reinforced to me that the name of the game is not visitor numbers, but overall GDP. Focusing on GDP forces us to think holistically about the wider tourism eco system and question how we can create more linkages. How could we ensure that the benefit of every tourism dollar (be it local or foreigner) spent; circulates and benefits as many of us as possible. To me the answer lies in exploring initiatives such as Chris James' work with the Travel Foundation in Tobago which (among other things) seeks to encourage stronger linkages between local agriculture and hoteliers. Remember that the government increased the Agriculture allocation to TT$1.8 billion and tourism must work synergistically with this sector.

Now moving away from what was said in the budget speech, many raised an eyebrow when they turned to the financial tables and saw that the allocation for Marketing was raised by about TT$1 million to around TT$69 million. On this issue, I have two (2) points to make.

Firstly, I point to 10% unemployment in the UK and USA, together with the prospect of a "double dip" and aggressive budget cuts in both nations. From September 3rd, Germans buying tickets for travel to the Caribbean from January 1st 2011 onwards have to pay an extra EURO45 (US$57) tax. For the year ended July 2010, UK outbound travel was down 10% for leisure, down 17% for business and 7% for visits to friends and relatives. I have advocated that it is best to focus on the lowest hanging fruits first. That is, domestic tourism. Our tourism economic structure is closer to the UK than our neighbouring islands as we both have between 60-70% of the sector spend coming from locals. UK Tourism Minister John Penrose has been pushing "staycations" with positive economic results.

Secondly, we should use the time (next couple years?) until our key overseas markets recover to get our "product" in order. TDC is right to focus on quality standards. We should also upgrade sights and attractions while building community tourism into the corner stone of our industry as it is this that will drive sustainable development particularly in our rural areas. When the overseas markets recover - then we will be ready to host them to a higher standard.

Yes we could talk about diversification to BRIC nations, niches such as eco, medical, dive, weddings etc but the first step is to have a united, industry-wide strategic plan agreed by stakeholders and grounded in hard data.

My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country. As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful land. Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in the future of our beloved country.

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