Off the beaten track: The tourism sector can offer visitors new experiences

A significant segment of the tourism business is focused on water vessels, ranging from large luxury cruisers to recreational yachts. According to the Central Statistical Office (CSO), cruise ship passenger visits to Tobago more than tripled in 2015, rising from 16,159 in 2014 to 56,220, indicating that cruise ship tourism is emerging as a major growth area. (Zolpidem)

On The Up & Up

The background to Tobago’s performance was a broadly positive year for tourism across the Caribbean as a whole, boosted by a combination of low oil prices and a strong US dollar. Overall, cruise arrivals across the Caribbean grew by 1.3% to 24.4m, according to the 2016 “State of the Tourism Industry Report” by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO). Within that, Trinidad and Tobago registered the highest rate of increase, at 104.4%, while arrivals in Tobago rose by a multiple of 3.5x.

A major factor in this growth is the island’s success in attracting more and bigger cruise ships. In 2014 some 29 vessels visited Tobago, bringing an average of 1025 passengers each. In 2015 there were 52 ships, with an average of 1243 passengers per ship.

The island has also been relatively successful despite the conventional wisdom that it lies too far south of the main cruise routes. Fredrica Brooks-Adams, director of tourism at the Division of Tourism of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), told OBG the increase in cruise ship arrivals reflected a successful strategy of approaching the main cruise line head offices directly to market Tobago as a destination. However, there has traditionally been some debate over the economic desirability of cruise ship-based tourism. The primary reason for caution is that cruise ships tend to bring large numbers of visitors that remain for relatively short periods of time, with a comparatively low per capita spend.

In many cases they come for only one day, or if staying for longer, they typically spend the night on the cruise ship itself. As a result, local spending on hotels and other services can be limited. However, all visitors can be seen as contributing to the broader sector. According to Samuel Martin, transport coordinator at the THA’s Tourism and Transportation Division, the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association estimates that the average cruise visitor spends $74 per day.

In October 2015 Tracy Davidson-Celestine, secretary of the THA’s Tourism and Transportation Division, commented on the arrival of visitors on the Carnival Liberty, a liner operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, to local daily Tobago News, “The increase in cruise passengers means an increase in revenues for the taxi drivers, for the tour operators, for the tour guides and even the vendors on the island, and this is throughout communities as well.” She added that special events, like cultural shows and a 90-minute canopy tour of the rainforest, are also being organised.

New Segments

At the other end of the per capita tourism spend spectrum is yacht tourism. Here, the two islands have a powerful combined attraction. Tobago has scenic beauty, while Trinidad has a highly sophisticated marine services industry based in Chaguaramas. Both islands are also south of the hurricane belt, making them a good repair destination.

However, in contrast to the cruise ship trend, yacht visits to Tobago were down 14% to 275 in 2015, according to the CTO. The local industry cites a number of reasons for this reduction.

Additionally, there is strong competition from nearby Grenada, where many yacht marinas are competitively priced. Some visitors have also become concerned over security issues, with reports that yachts have been attacked by Venezuelan pirates while sailing between Grenada and T&T. In addition, as of February 2016 a value-added tax (VAT) of 12.5% has been applied to all yacht services, ending a long-standing exemption. Services for yachts had previously been considered as non-VAT-liable exports, as the boats would eventually leave the country after servicing.