The ongoing confusion surrounding the proposed spend by the Government of $50 million to upgrade hotels and guesthouses in Tobago in order to improve the island’s tourism product is the latest in what has been a history of taxpayers losing millions of dollars in tourism spend under the control of the Tobago House of Assembly.
The latest confusion surrounds allegations that the system being used to allocate funding to properties on the island is flawed, in that there are a number of “ghost properties on the list” and there is also an unfair distribution that favours the smaller guest houses as opposed to the larger properties.
According to the original plan, the smaller hotels and guest houses are expected to get the lion’s share of $46 million, while any hotel with over 50 rooms will have to split the remaining $4 million.
This is not the first time that taxpayers’ money has been used to upgrade properties in Tobago.
Under the Tourism Accommodation Upgrade Programme (TAUP) there were reimbursable grants for approved upgrade work done to accommodation facilities in Tobago. Many of those properties had work that remained incomplete, over budget and in some cases the hotels even went into bankruptcy.
But the history of taxpayer’ money being used by the Tourism Division of the THA and it not leading to an improved sector it littered with example of wastage.
In 2015, for instance, the THA spent a total of $32 million to purchase two properties, Sanctuary Villa at Black Rock and Manta Lodge, a Dive Villa at Speyside. Since then, in spite of talk of investors showing interest, nothing has been done with either properties. In fact the properties are both incomplete and are the homes of bats and rodents as they have been sitting idly for more than five years.
The THA and then Secretary of Tourism in the Tobago House of Assembly Tracy Davidson-Celestine were intimately involved in the purchase of the hotels and they remain white elephants, with taxpayers money appearing to have gone down the drain.
Davidson-Celistine is now the Secretary of Health in the THA and the political leader of the Tobago Council of the PNM.
The 11-year-old Tobago Jazz Experience was designed to attract visitors to the island. In 2019 alone the festival incurred a budget of $12 million and while former Chief Secretary Kelvin Charles commissioned economist Dr Ralph Henry, chairman of Kairi Consultants, to conduct a comprehensive economic impact assessment of the festival for the past 10 years, the results of those findings were never made public.
Another thorn in the side of the Tobago Jazz Experience is the failure of THA officials to provide information on a reported court matter against international recording artist D’Angelo (Michael Eugene Archer) who was allegedly paid US $430,000 to perform at the 2017 Tobago Jazz Experience but failed to make an appearance.
In September 2016 then Secretary of Tourism and Transportation Davidson-Celestine launched two of a proposed six heritage trails. Significant sums were spent to upgrade several sites some of which are still incomplete.
The Scarborough Trail was air-marked to start from the Esplanade and end at Fort King George. The church trail was designed to begin at the Mt Pleasant Anglican Church and cemetery and end at Moriah Moravian Church. These remain incomplete and not an option for locals and visitors.
Also in 2015 a zip-line project for the Main Ridge Forest Reserve was announced. After spending $500,000 to get the project off the ground the project was put on hold.
Approximately $4 million was approved to undertake this project, which was expected to be completed within seven weeks of the materials arriving on site. A service agreement was signed in June 2015 between the THA and Original Canopy Tours Enterprise Ltd to design, develop and construct a high angle canopy tour course in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve.
The division paid $416,000 to Original Canopy Tours Enterprises Ltd for materials, equipment and a 40-foot insulated shipping container, and $192,571 payment for procurement project management done by EIDCOT (Eco Industrial Development Company of Tobago) and visits to Tobago by Original Canopy Tours Enterprises Ltd.
Also under Davidson- Celestine’s leadership as Tourism Secretary, in 2012 there were plans to construct a conservation building to house artifacts that were going to “be plucked from the seabed of the Scarborough port”. This project was to be lead by Dr Kroum Batcharov of the Maritime Archeology University of Connecticut, who was hired to work alongside the Rockley Bay Research Project to investigate and harvest 17th century artifacts from shipwrecks on the Scarborough harbour again this is a project that has not been completed and money spent by the THA to no avail.
While the disbursement of the government’s $50 million dollar upgrade grant continues to be a proverbial “bone of contention” among property owners in Tobago, many are calling on Tobago House of Assembly officials to say how they intend to utilize the funds previously allocated for several cancelled events such as the Tobago Jazz Experience and the Tobago Goat and Crab Race Festival at Buccoo.
They also wonder if this is going to be another case of money being thrown away and failed projects.