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Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association president Chris James.

Camille McEachnie

Tobago’s tourism stakeholders look to the 2021 budget for recovery and sustainability plans for the industry, says Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association president Chris James.

He said COVID-19 “decimated” the industry, and the sector “collapsed.” He told Guardian Media less than 20,000 international tourists visited the island, via the airlines, last year.

While Tobago’s figures were comparatively low, in neighboring Grenada, over 97,000 tourists visited that island’s shores in 2019.

He said Tobago’s tourism sector began showing growth early 2019 until, understandably, the borders were closed late March, 2020.

This move, though necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 caused Tobago’s “entire Tobago private sector to collapse…quash(ing) the gains made in 2019 and decimated(ing) Tobago’s tourism industry.”

Speaking of the economic impact, he said almost one-third of Tobago’s 33,000 workers are directly or indirectly affected by hits to the tourism industry.

Most of those in the sector are now unemployed as many stakeholders in the accommodation sector have closed their businesses, temporarily, he said.

“ They had to let go of staff as they have no guests. Still, they have maintenance costs they must meet, like security and utilities. Many members say they can’t even meet those costs,” James said.

According to Tobago House of Assembly’s Tobago Tourism Agency Limited (TTAL), the island’s tourism sector contributed approximately 14 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product and employs 16,000 People.

Tobago’s tourism industry not alone.

In the Caribbean, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) reports “an estimated 50 per cent to 60 per cent fall in visitor spend.”

On the occasion of World Tourism Day, the CTO talked about “significantly reduced revenues in both the public and private sectors.”

Quoting figures from the International Labour Organization (ILO), it said: “almost half a million Caribbean tourism workers face the prospect of job losses, reductions in working hours, and loss of incomes as a result of the pandemic.”

Internationally, the situation is similar.

In August 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the pandemic created a “crisis” that has “devastated” the tourism internationally.

“For developing countries, it is an emergency … $320 billion in exports from tourism were lost” in the first five months of 2020 and “120 million direct jobs in tourism are at risk, he said.

Tourism industry stakeholders’ plans

Tobago’s tourism stakeholders are “optimistic” about the future, James said.

“In the short term, stakeholders need the moratorium at the banks to be extended. We have earned no money since March,” he said.

He added “ We need a similar loan guarantee which the Government had some years ago. It had an extended loan repayment period with reduced interest rates and an extended guarantee. We also need the consolidation of loans.”

He said the association’s members believe the industry will survive as it did after 911 and the global economic downturn.

The members recommend restarting the Tobago Standing Committee on tourism. The committee, comprised of Government, Tobago House of Assembly, and tourism stakeholders, engage all the necessary stakeholders to act quickly to make decisions in the industry’s best interest.

The members are also calling for a five-year plan of action for the industry. One of their major call is for barriers to be removed to foreign investors and for them to be incentivized.

Government’s plans

The tourism association’s president said tourism stakeholders remain grateful for the Government’s $50 million Tourism Accommodation Relief Grant to upgrade properties.

He said some hoteliers have already received their grants.

The Government has also added $5 million to the THA’s Enterprise Development Facility coffers for an Ancillary Services Grant.

This is for business owners in the food and beverage, adventure and recreation, and event planning industry.

Employees in the tourism industry can also benefit from the government’s salary relief grant.

In June 2020, the THA’s Executive Council appointed 17 Tobagonians to its post-COVID -19 recovery team.

The THA continues to hold discussions with stakeholders about post- COVID plans. It holds another virtual discussion on Tuesday, September 29.

Meanwhile, the THA is keeping the cost it incurs for the industry’s upkeep as low as possible.

Guardian media asked TTAL’s Chief Executive Officer Louis Lewis if the THA will continue to incur contractual airlift costs to international airlines like Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited. The airline provides a year-round service- two weekly flights in the winter and one weekly, in the summer.

The airline announced it would return to the Tobago route in October 2020.

“ That is a very fluid situation from the time the borders were closed there has always been anticipation that it will open,” he told Guardian Media.

He said the airline sets a time for its return to the route, every month and the THA is given 21 days to respond.

“ The contract has been broken by the situation. We do not have to pay for airlift.

The airline has not delivered so, therefore, we are not in debt,” Lewis stressed.