Tour operator Navin Kalpoo works on his tour boat at the Caroni Bird Sanctuary Visitors’ Facility last weekend.

Anna-Lisa Paul

Almost nine months after rivers were reopened, allowing Kalpoo’s Ibis Tours to resume operations for a restricted period, co-owner Navin Kalpoo says early indicators have highlighted several challenges that could be detrimental to their business.

During a telephone interview yesterday, Kalpoo said, “I had over 100 phone calls on Monday from persons who are excited but from the minute you tell them the change in hours, they are saying my kids are going to be in online classes or I am going to be at work.”

He said as a result of this, many persons are now only securing bookings on the weekend.

Beaches were reopened on December 18, 2021, from 5 am to noon daily; while rivers were reopened from Monday (January 17). In making the announcement on the reopening of rivers last Saturday (January 15), Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley extended the closing time for beaches and rivers to 2 pm.

Yesterday, Kalpoo said they are now offering two tours from 9 am to 11 am and noon to 2 pm.

Admitting they had enjoyed more traction before from people who had opted for the evening tour from 4 pm to 6 pm, he said, “This is usually more relaxing and after work and school hours.”

Grateful for the responses they have received so far for bookings, he said they intend to approach the Ministry of Tourism to request an exemption in terms of the operating hours based on the nature and type of business they operate.

He added, “Due to the fact of who we are and because we do not control nature, these are the national birds and they are wild, we can’t programme them.

“They usually come in the late hours, just before it gets dark so if some exemptions can be made for us in light of this, we would be extremely grateful.”

Ideally, Kalpoo said their preferred hours would be from 4 pm to 6.30 pm daily.

Expecting a drastic reduction in bookings during the week, he said this would further negatively impact the business, which had already been hit hard during the closure of the past eight months due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Having battled to ensure they satisfied their loan obligations and met the associated costs of keeping their five boats operational during the shutdown, Kalpoo said he was uncertain of how much longer they can continue in this manner.

Speaking to Guardian Media as he was clearing and cutting grass for a friend who was kind enough to hire him yesterday, Kalpoo said he had been forced to find other work to support himself and his family during the closure.

If the request to operate outside of the designated hours is rejected by the ministries of Tourism and Health, Kalpoo said they would have to continue to seek other avenues of revenue to earn a livelihood.

“We have been doing so many things to survive…I don’t even want to think along those lines,” Kalpoo said.

“It’s been very, very hard to maintain the boats and keeping them afloat. We continue to maintain them and paying the insurance and licenses, and we have to run them every so often to make sure the marine engines are not affected by build-up…we are still paying loans for some of our engines and boats so it has been very tough for us.”

Noting that the current hours would not provide the relaxing, scenic tour scenarios customers are accustomed to, as the sun is hottest at midday and directly overhead, he continued, “In the afternoon, you are looking overhead to see the snakes, the birds…and you can’t look up at the sun.”

He admitted there are some persons just wanting to get outside so they are coming forward, but online schooling was the biggest challenge now as parents said it was just not possible to make bookings due to clashes.

Efforts to contact Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell for a comment on whether he would consider extending the operating hours for tour operators were unsuccessful, as he was in the Senate for the majority of the day yesterday.

However, a tourism official said they may be open to discussions.

“We understand the challenges associated with the 2 pm cut-off time and we are very much open to making representation for an extension of the time.”

Pointing out that the tourism ministry operates within the parameters set out by the Public Health Regulations, the official added, “We made representation to the Chief Medical Officer for a restart of the tours in the first place, so there is a constant dialogue between the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, the Ministry of Health and the Caroni Bird Sanctuary tour operators.”