Trinidad and Tobago taps business and events, sports and ecotourism

While less prominent on the international tourism radar than other Caribbean destinations such as Barbados or the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago – particularly the latter island – has been able to capture a share of high-spending tourists from the US, the UK and Canada. Tobago’s smaller economy and natural landscape is more orientated towards leisure tourism than Trinidad, while the larger island continues to build on its established meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) segment.

The dissolution of the Tourism Development Company (TDC) and the establishment of the Tobago Tourism Agency (TTA) and the Tourism Trinidad Destination Management Company Limited (TTL) in 2017 led to a shift in the country’s approach to the sector. Now promoting the islands as two distinct travel options, Destination Trinidad and Destination Tobago, the government aims to develop sustainable tourism in pursuit of economic diversification and capitalise on each island’s unique attributes.

Structure & Oversight

The Ministry of Tourism (MoT), and the Division of Tourism, Culture and Transportation of the Tobago House of Assembly work closely together to implement sector legislation. According to the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) 2020, an economic management tool published by the Ministry of Planning and Development in October 2019, the MoT’s objective is defined as achieving “socio-economic transformation and growth through the development of a sustainable tourism sector by promoting effective stakeholder collaboration, successful strategic partnerships, and policy formulation and implementation”. In terms of the policy framework, a revised version of the National Tourism Policy is set to be published in 2020, while a revised version of the Tourism Master Plan is expected in 2021.

Recent Performance

The government’s main objective in the years to 2030 is to diversify the economy. A slump in global energy prices saw the country fall into a recession in 2015, demonstrating that oil and gas alone will not guarantee economic growth. With that in mind, Vision 2030 lays out a strategy for developing other areas of the economy, including tourism. However, while T&T has shown strong potential to attract both business and leisure visitors, it lags behind other more established Caribbean destinations.

Tourism contributed 7.6% to GDP in 2018, down from 7.9% the previous year. This came after the dissolution of the TDC and the resulting gap in marketing strategy during the establishment of the TTA and TTL. T&T’s 2017 figure of 7.9% compares to a total travel and tourism contribution to GDP of 40.6% in Barbados and 17.2% in the Dominican Republic that year. An estimated 59,000 people were employed in T&T’s tourism sector in 2018, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), equal to 9.5% of the workforce. In FY 2018/19 – which ran from October 1 to September 30 – TT$39m ($5.8m) was allotted in the state budget to enhance tourism infrastructure, of which TT$6.7m ($990,000) was utilised. That year the Las Cuevas Beach facility received upgrades to its wastewater treatment plant, restoration to the restaurant building, expanded pedestrian and car access, CCTV surveillance and LED lighting. The Manzanilla Beach facility, for its part, received work related to the sewer treatment plant, parking, seating and a new welcome sign. Old vending huts were demolished through the Maracas Corrective Works programme and construction of Paramin Lookout entered the negotiation phase. These four projects received TT$3.5m ($517,000) in funding.

2020 Plans

Public funds allocated to the tourism sector for FY 2019/20 totalled TT$103.7m ($15.3m), equal to 0.2% of the total national budget. Infrastructure projects will continue in 2020, with works on the docket for the Paramin Lookout, along with ongoing works at the facilities at Maracas Beach, Vessigny Beach, Las Cuevas Beach, Manzanilla Beach, the La Brea Pitch Lake Visitor facility, the Galera Point Lighthouse and the Tourism Immersive Signage Project. A total of eight identified sites are to receive collective funding of TT$23.1m ($3.4m). The above projects and funds are included in a TT$41m ($6.1m) total to address the aims of institutional and regulatory strengthening; service delivery and incentivised industry development; and sites and attractions development within the PSIP 2020. The remaining TT$62.7m ($9.3) is for recurrent expenses related to personnel, goods and services, minor equipment purchases, and transfers and subsidies. To encourage greater private investment in the sector, the MoT plans to establish the Tourism Incentives Advisory Committee in 2020 to draw up a strategic tourism investment plan and a suite of tourism incentives for the 2020-30 period. Furthermore, a tourism education and awareness programme will be launched via social media, TV and presentations in schools to educate the public about the benefits of building a strong tourism sector, foster national support and highlight professional opportunities.

In the MICE segment, Trinidad hosts the Annual Energy Conference, the Annual Trade and Industry Conference, and the TT-AMCHAM Health Safety and Security Conference. The MoT plans to expand the industry further over the coming decade. Thanks to its proximity and regular, direct flights to the US, along with its existing hotel and conference infrastructure, Trinidad already has the foundations to boost development of MICE tourism. Indeed, in the year to September 2019, 45,025 visitors stated “business/convention” as their main reason for travel, with this coming third after visiting friends and relatives, and leisure. The full-year figure for 2018 was 57,183.

Visitor Profiles

According to the MoT, visitor arrivals in 2018 totalled 375,485, though this marked a decrease from a recent high of 439,749 in 2015. The WTTC forecast the number of tourists to total 449,000 in 2019. Visitors come mostly from the US (44% of the total in 2018), Canada (13%), the UK (8.4%), Guyana (5.4%) and Barbados (2.9%). Many visitors from the US come to Trinidad on short business trips, whereas most Europeans take long-haul flights to Tobago for a leisure stay of around 14 days.

Having been successful in attracting North American and European markets, the growth of tourism from Asia is now capturing attention. Between January and July 2019 arrivals from South Korea – a non-core market – increased by 42% year-on-year (y-o-y), with business purposes being the primary driving force. However, tourist volume from Asia remains low in general, particularly in the leisure segment. This may be down to a number of factors, including more accessible beach destinations in South-east Asia and the lack of direct flights to T&T.

While the national Crime Prevention Programme aims to tackle elevated crime levels, no clear strategy has been delivered in relation to crime and tourism. However, as other regional destinations such as Mexico have demonstrated, crime perception is not always reflected in fluctuations in visitor numbers. Nevertheless, with flight times between the regions being over 20 hours and necessitating connections via the US or Canada, T&T has yet to focus on establishing a campaign to attract Asian tourists.

From January to September 2019 visitors arriving via cruise ships totalled 66,460, down 31.7% from the same period of 2018, when many cruises were rerouted to T&T following hurricane damage in other Caribbean destinations. The country is expecting 70,000 cruise passengers from 27 ships to disembark in Port of Spain in the November 2019 to April 2020 cruise season. The higher figure stems from the calling of two new cruise lines and three new cruise ships.

Leisure spending accounted for 81% of total tourist outlay in 2018, with business spending holding the remaining 19%, according to the WTTC. A press release by the MoT in October 2019 stated that visitor spend between January and June that year was 12.6% higher y-o-y, with an average outlay of TT$9180 ($1360) over a 14-day trip. The famous Carnival event saw visitor spend total almost TT$400m ($59.1m) and attracted 5% more people than in 2018, at 35,560 tourists.

Flying In

The country has two international airports: Piarco International Airport, 27 km from Port of Spain in Trinidad, and the smaller ANR Robinson International Airport (ANRRIA), 13 km from Tobago’s capital of Scarborough. According to the MoT, TTL has been collaborating with the Airports Authority to increase routes from regional locations and those further afield in order to boost passenger traffic.

The Piarco International Airport is home to 14 airlines serving 29 destinations. There are several daily flights between the US and Trinidad, with flag carrier Caribbean Airlines connecting New York (JFK and Newark), Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Orlando. JetBlue, American Airlines and United connect other airports such as Houston. There are 15 flights per week between Toronto and Trinidad, as well as an additional flight in the high winter season. There are also year-round flights connecting London Gatwick, Manchester and Frankfurt airports to Tobago. Trinidad is well connected regionally, with direct flights by Caribbean Airlines to Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Granada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Martin, St Vincent, Suriname and Venezuela.

Tobago’s ANRRIA, for its part, is set to undergo an overhaul in 2020 that will see the construction of a new terminal with road access, taxiway, apron, ramp and parking facilities. The Development Bank of Latin America will help fund the project and lend technical assistance to the selected contractor. At a total cost of TT$870m ($128.5m), construction will begin in early 2020 and take 12-18 months to complete. The government also has plans to modernise the existing terminal building. It is hoped that the development will encourage private companies to invest in Tobago as better transport links emerge. Although the collapse of UK travel agency Thomas Cook in September 2019 may have a negative effect on Tobago’s leisure numbers, the return of a weekly flight route by Sunwing between Toronto and Tobago in the 2019/20 winter season should help stabilise tourist volumes.

Domestic Connectivity

For moving between the islands, the Airbridge service is a 25-minute flight between the two airports by Caribbean Airlines. Some 695,000 people used this connection in the first eight months of 2019. Alternatively, the Seabridge is a highspeed ferry route that can transport passengers and vehicles between the two capitals. In January 2019 the government commissioned Australian shipbuilder Incat Tasmania to build a high-speed ferry capable of carrying 1000 passengers and 239 cars, and another to be built by Austal, also of Australia, to add to the fleet in 2020. In addition, in June 2019 the government began leasing the Jean de la Valette vessel for €34,500 per day from Virtu Ferries in Malta to support the existing fleet of ferries in the peak months of July and August. The decision was welcomed by Tobago tourism stakeholders, who cited it as an example of the government’s support of tourism on the smaller island.

Hotel Infrastructure

T&T has over 7700 rooms available for tourists across hotels, villas, apartments, guest houses, host homes, and bed and breakfasts, with the number split fairly evenly between the islands. Hotel revenue from room rental stood at TT$545m ($80.5m) in the year to October 2019, up from TT$515m ($76.1m) in 2018. Trinidad is aiming for an average hotel occupancy rate of 64% in FY 2019/20. An average of 59% was recorded in the first five months of 2019 and 60% for the whole of 2018, according to the MoT. Seeing as Tobago relies heavily on high-season leisure travellers, the island is hoping for an average annual occupancy rate of 34%, Chris James, president of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association, told OBG.

In January 2020 Sandals Resort International pulled out of its long-anticipated project in Tobago, which was first announced in October 2017. The CEO of Sandals cited negative press and low local support as the reasons for cancelling the project. The Sandals resort was to be located in Golden Grove, a prime tourist destination in western Tobago, and was expected to bring in up to $80m in revenue annually. The government and equity partners were slated to own the hotel, while Sandals would have overseen operations. Penned to be the biggest resort on the island and the largest of any Sandals hotel, the resort was to have 750 rooms and employ 2000 permanent staff. In a press conference about the Sandals cancellation, Prime Minister Keith Rowley highlighted the importance of attracting an internationally reputable brand to Tobago to promote the island as a prime tourist destination.

A few months before the news of the Sandals cancellation, the FY 2019/20 budget statement revealed that the US-based Apple Leisure Group will operate the Magdalena Grand Hotel resort in Tobago, which was previously managed by the government. The company is expected to carry out upgrades on the resort in 2020, providing some hope to those disheartened by the outcome of the Sandals project. The Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre in Port of Spain, meanwhile, invested in an update in 2019, and a full renovation is expected to take place in the near future, Olivier Maumaire, general manager at Hilton Worldwide, told OBG. At present, the facility mostly receives business visitors from the US, the UK and Canada, responding to the demand for MICE tourism.

Having well-established brands and operators on the islands is welcomed by the MoT, as it promotes a high level of reputability and recognition to international travellers. In this vein, Brian Frontin, CEO of the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants & Tourism Association, highlighted the need for greater regulation of the sector, as many small hotels are appearing on travel sites that do not comply with national standards, he told OBG. The key challenge to uniformity is that adherence to these standards remains voluntary and there is no licensing or registry system in place to ensure compliance across the board. If Trinidad’s vision is to develop its reputation as a major Caribbean tourist destination, it must ensure the safety and security of its visitors by introducing a meaningful and progressive regulatory framework that covers all tourism operators, including accommodation providers, tour operators and guides, and transport providers, Frontin emphasised to OBG.

Ecotourism

In 2016 a draft Tourism Road Map was prepared by the Standing Committee for the Strategic and Sustainable Development of Tourism in Trinidad. Based on findings by the Standing Committee, the road map adopted a niche approach to the development of the tourism sector. Business tourism, event tourism and ecotourism were outlined as the three main opportunities for growth in the coming years.

The Vision 2030 development strategy calls for greater economic diversity, and one avenue to accomplish this is through sustainable tourism. The PSIP 2020 highlights ecotourism as a key opportunity for development in the coming decade, thanks to the country’s natural beauty and extensive wildlife. With some 430 species of birds, 2500 plant species and an unmatched number of virgin beaches, cultivating a comprehensive ecotourism strategy could expand the sector beyond the typical sun and sea options or MICE tourism. T&T was ranked 35th out of 180 countries in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index by Yale University, Columbia University and the World Economic Forum, which measures environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The country already has a base for eco-activities, offering swamp and forest tours, turtle watching, and diving in the Nylon Pool and Buccoo Reef. In 2020 the Environmental Management Authority will begin creating a conservation plan for T&T’s national bird, the Scarlet Ibis, which is an environmentally sensitive species, according to the PSIP. Birdwatching already attracts tourists to the region, but the MoT hopes to follow in the footsteps of neighbouring Guyana. The small South American country was named “best ecotourism destination in the world” in 2019 by the ITB Berlin travel trade fair. Guyana has developed its ecotourism segment as part of its national Green State Development Strategy, which seeks to protect, sustain and promote the country’s biodiversity.

Sports

Another area for development is sports tourism, for which the government developed a draft policy in 2018. T&T has five multipurpose stadia, eight indoor sporting arenas, five 25-metre-long community swimming pools, one national hockey rink and three major golf courses, as well as international cricket facilities located at the University of the West Indies, according to the policy. Following the construction of a new aquatic centre and cycling velodrome in Couva in 2016, the MoT hopes to promote Couva as a sport tourism centre. Sport has always been an interest in the country, which has co-hosted the 2007 Cricket World Cup, as well as the 2001 FIFA U-17 World Championship and the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.

There were around 1600 sport tourism arrivals to Trinidad in 2010, which increased to 6100 in 2015, the latest data available from the MoT. Upcoming events in the segment include the Interhash 2020 in April, a social running event, and the Commonwealth Youth Games slated for 2021. The MoT hopes to develop this market further, envisioning the country as the leading sport tourism destination in the Caribbean.

Marketing

The establishment in 2017 of the TTA and TTL has allowed for the marketing of two separate destinations instead of grouping the islands together. By offering two unique locations that are easy to travel between, the government aims to attract business travellers to Trinidad and leisure travellers to Tobago, with some time by these groups spent on the alternate island. Trinidad, with its business infrastructure and quick connections to Tobago, is especially well placed for corporate planners who seek to offer meetings and conventions in destinations that allow side travel options for those attending meetings and events.

The government has stated that TTL will establish a brand identity and launch a website in early 2020 to promote campaigns for the year, while the TTA has already created its website. The tourism body for the larger island will focus on MICE and sporting events, building on the strengths of its existing infrastructure and flight routes. In October 2019 Randall Mitchell, the minister of tourism, stated that 80% of visitors from non-core markets identified business as their reason for coming to T&T, demonstrating the need for Trinidad to promote this segment to new source markets.

Outlook

With the ingredients of a typical Caribbean sun, sea and sand destination, an ecotourism centre and MICE gathering point, T&T has significant potential to develop its tourism sector further. After a slow start following the creation of two organisations that will promote the islands as independent but culturally interconnected international destinations, progress is starting to be seen. Investment in hotel infrastructure by established global operators and the construction of a new terminal at ANRRIA in Tobago is also hoped to spur additional foreign investment. In addition, the development of niche tourism through sporting events and ecotourism is likely to attract a new market of international travellers looking for something that goes beyond the traditional beach-centric model.

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