For an island economy, air and sea transport links are critically important. There is lively debate about the current state of Tobago’s transport links and the need to upgrade in the future. One of its main connections is the regular air bridge service of shuttle flights between Trinidad’s Piarco Airport and ANR Robinson International Airport (ANRRIA) in Tobago, operated by state-owned carrier Caribbean Airlines (CAL). While the air bridge offers a cheap and easy service for people travelling between the islands, there has been debate over how to maximise return for CAL, Tobago and the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
Various stakeholders in the tourism sector have called for the air service to be improved. The T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce (TTCIC) has been at the forefront of lobbying efforts to expand and upgrade the air bridge, saying that developments are essential for the survival of the tourism product.
There are also concerns over the financial sustainability of the air bridge service in its existing format. CAL offers a fixed, government-subsidised fare of TT$300 ($45) per round trip. However, in testimony to a senate committee in early 2017, Shameer Mohammed, chairman of CAL, said the fare had been fixed for 10 years and did not cover operating costs. He estimated the true cost of carrying a passenger on a return trip to be between TT$600 ($90) and TT$700 ($105), depending on the cost of fuel. He said that CAL received TT$300 ($45) from each passenger, plus an extra TT$100 ($15) per passenger in government subsidies, but that this was not enough to operate the route on a commercially sustainable basis. Other issues included the no-show rate on flights, which was often as high as 25%. CAL proposed changes that would allow it to charge additional fees for excess baggage or booking changes as part of an attempt to increase cost recovery on the service.
The debate over whether the air bridge should operate on a strictly commercial basis has also attracted a wide range of opinions. Chris James, president of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association, has questioned such an approach. He believes it is in Tobago’s best interest to make the air bridge as cheap, efficient and easy to use as possible, arguing that if the government was to offer entirely free flights, the net cost-benefit impact for T&T would be positive. In his opinion, such a measure would maximise net foreign currency earnings from tourism. Business visitors to Trinidad would be encouraged by the free flights to also visit Tobago, where they would subsequently spend foreign currency. Meanwhile, international tourists to Tobago might equally be encouraged to see Trinidad.
Perhaps most importantly, free or cheap flights would encourage domestic tourism. If more Trinidadian holidaymakers were to visit Tobago instead of elsewhere in the Caribbean, the twin islands would make a saving of scarce foreign currency. As a result, some argue that continuing to subsidise the flights could be an economically rational policy to follow.
Plans for upgrading ANRRIA in Crown Point, Tobago, have been discussed for a number of years. In his budget speech in September 2016, Colm Imbert, T&T minister of finance, said work on the project would begin before the end of FY 2017. Orville London, the former chief secretary of Tobago, had said the intention of the project was to increase ANRRIA’s total annual capacity from 1m passengers to around 3.5m. The Airports Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (AATT) is managing the central government-funded project.
Hayden Newton, general manager of the AATT, said that the aim of the project is to transform the airport into more than just a simple point of passenger embarkation and disembarkation. “ANRRIA is undergoing more than just an airport upgrade,” he said. “We will be developing an entirely new terminal with expansive opportunities for foreign and domestic investors alike. This will significantly enhance Tobago’s appeal as a destination for international airlines, and it will also generate significant activity for the local Tobagonian economy.”
Frederica Adams, former director of tourism at the THA, told OBG that the airport illustrated both the great promise and the practical challenges facing the development of tourism in Tobago. For example, in its current configuration the airport’s only terminal receives three long-haul flights every Sunday. At 5.00pm a Caribbean Airlines flight arrives from New York carrying around 160 passengers. This is followed at 7.00pm by a Condor flight from Germany with 300 passengers, and at 8.00pm a Thomas Cook flight with a capacity of more than 250 arrives from Manchester.
The need for an upgrade is exacerbated by the fact that the arrival hall at the airport has a maximum capacity of 150 people. In addition, current procedures require every item of luggage to be individually scanned. As a result, Adams said, it would take relatively little to cause major congestion and passenger inconvenience. If some flights were delayed and arrived closer together there could be long passenger queues, while rain could also cause traffic problems on access roads. The airport upgrade has thus been earmarked as an urgent priority as Tobago looks to increase the overall number of passenger arrivals.
Gary Melville, former secretary of infrastructure and public utilities, agreed with Adams, pointing out that the area currently available for passengers, passport control, baggage reclaim and Customs is limited.
Another major piece of Tobago’s transport network is the inter-island ferry service and port facilities. The ferry runs between Port of Spain in Trinidad and Scarborough in Tobago, operated by the state-owned company, T&T Inter-Island Transportation. While it offers a cost-effective and easy form of transport between the two islands, concerns have been raised over the efficiency of the operation. Because the ferry service shares docking facilities with other vessels in Port of Spain, in the past there have been reported disruptions to planned journeys.
Meanwhile, major events in the Trinidadian capital have also led to blocked or delayed access to docking facilities. According to the Inter-Island Ferry Committee and the TTCIC, an example of these disruptions took place in October 2016, when a cargo service was suspended for four days to accommodate the Conference of Defence Ministers of the Americas, which was being held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Port of Spain’s waterfront. Businesses did not receive prior warning about the interruption, according to Diane Hadad, chair of the ferry committee.
“Four days is a lot of days to miss cargo coming into the island,” said Hadad. The operating company responded that there had been consultations, and that efforts were made to provide alternatives for lighter goods and vehicles.
There has also been discussion over Tobago’s main port, located in the island’s capital, Scarborough. The Scarborough port serves three main roles: first, as a terminal for the regular daily ferry services to and from Port of Spain; second, as a destination for cargo ships using the same route between the two islands; and third, the Scarborough facility acts as a passenger terminal for cruise ships, an important source of tourist visits to the island.
In a positive sign for tourist numbers, government officials expect 36 cruise ships to dock in Tobago during the 2016/17 cruise season. While such figures are a boost to the local economy, Melville told OBG they also expose the need for further expansion and development at Scarborough port. “We have been trying to attract more cruise ship visitors, but when the ships come in Scarborough becomes very congested. The THA would like to see the development of a cruise ship facility.”
As Scarborough’s port facility becomes busier, there have also been increased efforts to develop a commercial port in Tobago capable of supporting the importation of raw materials, along with the export of locally made finished products. Melville said the national government had committed to funding a feasibility study to assess Tobago’s port needs, which would consider various options and locations. One possibility would be to expand the existing port to deal with different passenger and cargo needs, while another would separate passenger and cargo facilities, with the possible construction of a commercial port at Cove Eco-Industrial and Business Park.
At a more local level, the THA was exploring the option of engaging in a public-private partnership for transport services, with officials saying that Tobago’s public bus system was under review. The system does not have a central terminal, while there were additional problems posed by traffic congestion and a lack of parking facilities in Scarborough. A proposal has therefore been made to consider granting a private sector consortium a concession to build and operate a combined bus terminal and car-parking facility.
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