Travel Agent / April 3, 2006
By Larry Luxner
PORT OF SPAIN — Trinidad & Tobago is known for oil exports, calypso and Carnival — but not for hospitality to tourists.
James Hepple wants to change that.
Hepple is president and director of the newly established Tourism Development Co. of Trinidad & Tobago Ltd. (TDC). In May 2005, the TDC replaced the now-disbanded Tourism and Industrial Development Co. (TIDCO) in a government restructuring that acknowledged how far behind the country's tourism industry is compared to its Caribbean neighbors.
"Ten or 15 years ago, there was an independent tourism board that was merged into TIDCO, because at that time, the government felt that all non-energy activities would best be handled under one entity," Hepple said. "But the government later realized that this diluted efforts being made to develop the tourist industry.
Hepple, a Canadian, was deputy director of tourism in the Bahamas from 1995 to 2001, and executive director of the Curaçao Tourist Board from 2001 until his current appointment last August. At the TDC, he oversees a staff of 44.
In 2004, according to official statistics, the twin-island republic welcomed 442,000 air arrivals; of that total, 380,000 came to Trinidad, and 62,000 to Tobago. Hepple estimates that in 2005, those numbers rose to 500,000 tourists (420,000 to Trinidad, 80,000 to Tobago). Total tourism expenditures came to $420 million in 2004 and around $450 million last year.
"The numbers keep going up every year," he said, despite concerns over Trinidad's alarming increase in violent crime, including kidnapping. "We've seen three years of back-to-back, 8% growth, so crime is clearly not having much of an impact."
Hepple said 36% of all air arrivals to Trinidad & Tobago come from the United States, while another 23% come from neighboring Caribbean countries, 15% from the United Kingdom and 10% from Canada. About 75% of those visiting Tobago stay in hotels, while only 18% of visitors to Trinidad stay in hotels (since many of them are visitors from the Trinidadian diaspora who stay with family and friends).
Even so, he said, "we've got demand running way ahead of supply" with only 1,500 rooms in four- and five-star hotels and an average hotel occupacy rate in 2005 of around 85%.
To encourage more tourism, the TDC will spend $18 million this year on tourism promotion, one-third of which will go to the U.S. market.
Hans Stecher, a retired luxury-goods retailer and tourism industry pioneer, said that when he started pushing tourism in the 1960s, "people didn't want to know abaout it. They weren't able to make a distinction between service and servitude."
Stecher added: "I'm convinced that until recently, the fundamentals of success in tourism were not really identified. In my view — apart from niche markets — these fundamentals are the following: resort hotel development on the beaches and free-port shopping, including for locals, and constant advertising, promotion and publicity in proportion to the number of rooms available."
Hepple acknowledged that more tourists might visit Trinidad if its capital city were more appealing. Despite the country's oil wealth, Port of Spain has a dingy, industrial air to it, with raw sewage often flowing in drainage ditches along city streets. Its waterfront is distinctly ugly, and it lacks the romantic charm of Old San Juan (Puerto Rico), Charlotte Amalie (St. Thomas), Bridgetown (Barbados) and other Caribbean ports of call.
To that end, the government has proposed an international waterfront project expected to cost $300 million to $400 million in its first phase alone.
The project is being overseen by a government agency known as the Urban Development Co. of Trinidad & Tobago (UDECOTT) on land being leased from the Ports Authority. Envisioned is a 428-room Hyatt hotel composed of twin 26-story towers, along with retail facilities, a conference center and a car park that can accommodate up to 1,200 vehicles.
A division of CL Financial Ltd. is involved in construction of the hotel and other aspects of the waterfront project, which is slated for completion by November 2007.
Part of that redevelopment plan involves relocating the cruise-ship port. The current temporary facility, measuring 13,000 square feet, was opened Jan. 17 at a cost of around $1 million. It contains a large crafts market, large reception area, Internet cafe and 16 souvenir shops.
Balkaran Maharaj, PATT's supervisor of cruise shipping, said he expects 85,000 cruise-ship passengers in the country this year, up from 67,000 in 2005. This year, he said, Port of Spain will get 30 to 40 port calls, while Tobago will receive between 40 and 50 visits.
According to PATT statistics, the overwhelming majority of cruise passengers are British (81%), followed by Americans (11%), Germans (3%) and Canadians (2%). In 2003, the average cruise passenger spent TT$253.00 (around $42) while in port.
"We look at working together with our neighboring destinations," said Maharaj. "We have a close relationship with Barbados, Curaçao, Margarita and Grenada. We don't really see them as competition, rather as the deep southern Caribbean. We all have a chance of getting a piece of the pie."