Why do I go on and on about tourism? The answer is that in the Caribbean, tourism is everything. It is the biggest generator of income and the biggest employer. Even oil-rich Trinidad has energy, manufacturing and service sectors that are heavily dependent on regional markets. These regional markets would collapse without tourism. Ask any Trini that travels regionally about how grocery shelves up and down the Caribbean are stocked with Trini brands. Our island neighbours buy smoothies and enjoy free Internet access at Rituals. Our island neighbours often bank at Republic Bank or get insurance from known Trini insurance companies. To understand tourism trends, is to understand the ups and downs of our regional economy. Our region is one inextricably linked market–despite what politicians say.
This regional economy is in trouble. Open the newspapers every day and you read about our neighbouring states having some of the highest debt ratios in the world. Some are going to the IMF while others see their credit ratings slip. Many are struggling to maintain visitor numbers and more importantly, visitor spend. Looking beyond our region to the US, there is a growing number of respected voices who expect some sort of economic shock as both state and the Federal government buckle under an unimaginable debt burden. To pretend that economically, everything is hunky dory is to bury one’s head in the sand.
Locally, our Central Bank Governor has recently been reported as saying: “Our proven energy reserves are fast dwindling, though some experts think that prospects for new discoveries are high. We keep saying God is a Trini. We don’t like to talk about our dwindling reserves. I don’t know why. Oil production has already fallen below 110,000.” For those of us that do confront this reality, all agree that Trinidad must incorporate tourism as one of its strategic initiatives in diversifying. Yet, on September 29, 2010, another newspaper carried an article written by an analyst from a respected local financial institution. This article was supported by a most insightful bar chart on tourism arrivals. It clearly demonstrates that arrivals to T&T were trending upwards from 1995 to 2005. Since 2005 they have been in constant decline.
Some in the sector point to consistently poor leadership in tourism. I agree to an extent, but I propose that the situation is slightly more complex. The year 2005 was before the present economic turmoil and was in fact at the height of global economic prosperity, so the reason for the reversal in our tourism numbers must be internal. 2005 was the year when the Tourism Development Act was amended and the Tourism Development Company Ltd (TDC) was formed.
Since the formation of the TDC, tourism in T&T has enjoyed a downward spiral. I have spoken with no tourism stakeholder who believes that the closure of Tidco and the creation of the TDC has worked well. Think about it. The TDC is ostensibly responsible for promoting tourism but has little control or input into Carnival which remains the biggest attraction. The TDC struggles to attract airlift (which could mean more visitors), but then contends with Caribbean Airlines whose mandate is to be commercially viable, which means defending their home from competing carriers. The TDC is to attract hotel investment but then when some hoteliers run the numbers, they see that they cannot profitably compete with cut-price rates from the State-owned Hyatt and Hilton during the low season. Of course, the TDC has to promote both Trinidad and Tobago but must tread carefully when it comes to the THA which has its own Tourism Division. The tools which fall under a single Ministry of Tourism in competing destinations are effectively split among many Ministries, Local Government bodies and the THA. In management theory, we are taught that when someone has responsibility without authority, success is difficult if not impossible.
So what happens when a tourism entity consistently fails to deliver? Simple—travel frequently; look busy, while avoiding questions and criticism—no matter how constructive. Compare us to neighbouring destinations like Barbados where I mentioned in a previous column that they had a full page article in January describing 2010 activity and consequent 2010 arrivals. Compare us to Antigua where last week, the CEO of their tourist board defended his choice of UK marketing company to the general public. When tax payers’ money is being spent, transparency and accountability are not a bother, but an obligation. We need greater transparency in tourism if we are to turn it around.