Over the past few days, I have been participating in a Facebook discussion about what we call tourism in T&T, although we are apparently no longer one twin-island country. This according to individuals allegedly governing us. But we cannot blame only the current individuals for the fact that we have no plans or philosophy regarding what is a meaningful industry in so many countries.
We have never accepted tourism as a source of employment and income which also drives a sense of national pride in so many countries, from the largest to the smallest. It was never something we needed or wanted. Indeed, the heading “Tourism” never appeared in any national budget until the mid-1980s, after our economy collapsed into chaos because of our waste, corruption, and falling oil prices.
In our uninformed heads, we had one tourist attraction, and that was Carnival. There was only one other tourism sector we could conceive, and that was what tourism-dependent islands sold to North America and Europe: Sun, Sand, and Sea. And please do not think I am being scornful of these assets—they are beautiful, attract millions of visitors, and I wrote this from one such asset-blessed and sensibly exploited Caribbean country—Saint Kitts and Nevis.
We are not aware that except for a couple of beaches in Tobago, and possibly one in Trinidad that we have now destroyed, we do not have these assets. But this should not be a handicap, because we have so much more to attract the hundreds of thousands of travellers who seek experiences beyond lying on white sand beaches drinking daiquiris made with Puerto Rican rums. We are so locked into this Sand, Sea, and Daiquiri image that we cannot embrace the attractions with which we are blessed.
Please try to accept that Trinidad especially, Tobago less so, will never be a sun, sand, and sea destination, no matter how desperately we are committed to becoming one. For starters, Trinidad is not a “Caribbean island”. It is, in reality, an island in South America, washed by the Orinoco and the great rivers of the Guyanas and even the Amazon. Our geography, geology, flora, and fauna are tropical South American. But our people see our forests, wetlands, remote beaches, rivers, and waterfalls as “bush and swamps” better to be cleared for malls and high-rise condominiums.
Most of us are unaware that the Asa Wright Nature Centre is known around the world. While the “sand and sea” hotels in Tobago are empty, Asa Wright hosts over twelve hundred overnight visitors per year, most staying an average of three to four nights. And about 75 per cent of these include Tobago in their visit itinerary, staying at small but genuine Nature Hotels there, and visiting the Main Ridge Forest Reserve (an UNESCO Heritage Site and the oldest Nature Reserve in the Western Hemisphere, but what does that mean to us?). Our forests, wetlands, flora, and fauna bring a constant stream of visitors to our islands, but they avoid Port-of-Spain, Maracas Bay and Crown Point.
Tourism is “developed” by having genuine reasons for visitors to want to come to an area, not by constructing billion-dollar Gulags for foreign entities to operate to the exclusion of locals. It appears that the people of Castara have quietly been developing a genuine local hospitality industry without the blighting hand of government interference. What is the potential of this revolutionary behaviour? Read the histories of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, not that Castara should grow to those heights (hopefully?).
But beyond all this nature bestowed bounty we possess attractions so under-exploited that we remain unconscious to their increasing appeal to potential visitors. “Getaway” tourism is a rapidly growing attraction to the modern travelling tourist, as the artificiality and alleged exclusivity of the all-inclusive, enclosed plastic resort becomes increasingly boring. We have cultural, sporting and religious events which could be marketed. Why not invite the growing East Indian population in the USA and Canada to visit for cricket, Phagwa, Divali and Eid al-Fitr? With all our new sports facilities, why have we not sought to host major athletic meets, or invite people here for training in their winter months? We actually drive events away!
But all of these opportunities fade in the face of our appalling governance, and the unnecessary problems we citizens suffer, and which restrain our marketability. Problems of security, water supply, health care, and the hotel room tax. The Government must fix the first three for us, and that will comfort the tourism market, and the removal of the punitive room tax will make our hotels more competitive and the increased visitors will more than cover the shortfall.
Our dilemma is that we refuse to even acknowledge what we truly have to share!