Saturday will be exactly six months since COVID-19 was officially recorded to have entered the shores of T&T.
It has been an unwanted visitor overstaying its welcome ever since.
And while its presence here has been difficult for all of us in varying degrees, it has been financially devastating on the tourism sector.
“Globally, COVID-19 has wreaked financial havoc with most, if not all, companies operating in the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors,” Lorraine Pouchet the president of the T&T Incoming Tour Operators’ Association (TTITOA) told Guardian Media.
TTITOA has been in existence since 1990 and comprises destination management companies (DMC’s) and ground tour operators, who provide a wide range of services and employ thousands of people.
Collectively, the TTITOA’s members have over 450 years of experience in tourism. They have not experienced anything like this before.
“All our members have, since March 16, been operating in a zero-revenue environment with continuing fixed costs and we expect this to continue for some time as borders remain closed indefinitely,” she said.
When COVID-19 entered T&T, the government took action to try and stop its spread by closing the country’s borders.
While the government has offered financial assistance to those to affected by the pandemic Pouchet said none of TTITOA’s members have indicated receipt of any of those grants despite applying for them.
“A good starting point would be for the government to get these grants to our members,” she said.
“Our members are also expected to pay statutory requirements based on last year’s income-tax/business levy/vat etc. There needs to be a review of the payments, especially the statutory requirements.
We have not received income for six months yet are expected to make payments on 2019 income. We must consider here that we would need to be refunded any payments made in this format in 2021. Governments has consistently stated that they have no money…..how do they intend to refund 2020 payments on income that was not received?” Pouchet said.
And so Pouchet will be keeping a keen eye on the National Budget scheduled to be presented on October 5 to see if any answers to these questions will be forthcoming.
This year the Tourism Ministry has been expanded and is now the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts.
Last year when the national budget was read Tourism was allocated $103 million and the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts received $496.5 million.
One of the allocations Pouchet said she will like to see is funds being made available so members of TTITOA can upgrade their products including have an online presence.
“The ability to offer Virtual Tours will go a long way in keeping destination T&T uppermost in the minds of the traveller,” Pouchet said.
In other to remain relevant, T&T will need to come up with creative ways to entice visitors here when the borders reopen, Pouchet said.
“Other destinations have come up with innovative ways of getting through this period (eg St. Lucia and Barbados) and T&T should take a page from their books. Countries that have regulated open borders with the right measures put in place, have been able to keep their COVID-19 numbers down and to facilitate some degree of tourism. The countries that do these things and maintain their infrastructure and don’t allow the investment of capital over the years go to waste will then be best poised to reap the benefits when COVID-19 becomes more manageable. T&T needs to be one of those countries,” Pouchet said.
Pouchet said that stakeholders should utilise this downtime to train in various aspects that contribute to the delivery of the tourism product such as customer service and the new health requirements as a result of COVID-19.
“Emphasis appears to be placed on the Tobago product with no real consideration being given to Trinidad. While we are happy for our Tobago brothers and sisters If the suppliers of the Trinidad product do not get assistance to weather this storm when we come out of it in two to three years, we will have no one left to provide the service,” she said.
Last year the T&T’s tourism sector directly accounted for only 2.6 per cent of T&T’s Gross Domestic Product and directly employing 17,500 people.
In July a a draft of the National Tourism Policy stated that in a post-COVID-19 world, “tourism will continue to play a significant role, though, as with all other sectors, aspects of the business operations will have to be altered.”
One of those alterations is that Trinidad will be positioned as “The place that’s always in season”.
Both Trinidad and Tobago are to be marketed separately.
In 2017 two new entities were established premised on the unique characteristics of each island, the Tobago Tourism Agency Limited (TTAL) was charged with developing, marketing and promoting Tobago’s tourism offerings while Tourism Trinidad Limited (TTL) had a similar responsibility for Trinidad.
According to the National Tourism Policy, Tobago’s Position Statement is “Promoting a sustainable tourism product and unique experiences through our diverse culture.”
The Tobago Tourism Agency has so far been using the destination marketing campaign “Tobago Beyond.”