The San Juan Star / July 5, 2001
By Larry Luxner
SCARBOROUGH, Tobago -- Described more than 40 years ago in Fodor's 1960 Guide to the Caribbean as "Trinidad's beautiful stepchild," Tobago -- a tropical paradise located about 150 miles southeast of San Juan -- is bracing for an unprecedented hotel construction boom that coincides with one of its worst tourist seasons ever.
Last November, Hilton International's newest Caribbean property, the $35 million Hilton Tobago, officially opened for business following more than a year of delays. The splashy new 200-room hotel, by far the largest on the island, dwarfs Tobago's other resorts, which are mainly small, exclusive cottages and villas of no more than 20 or 30 units apiece.
Georg Weinlaender, the Hilton's general manager, says as many as five more big hotels could rise in Tobago over the next few years, as tourists discover the charms of this unspoiled island known more for bird sanctuaries and deep-sea diving than for the all-inclusive resorts so typical of Jamaica, the Bahamas and other leading Caribbean destinations.
"Tobago is a sleeping giant," says the Austrian-born Weinlaender, who worked in the Middle East, Europe and Africa before ending up in Tobago two years ago. "This island has so much to offer. It's unspoiled, the people are friendly, the crime rate is very low, and it has a rainforest and incredible diving. And it's one of the best dive sites I've ever seen."
Despite Tobago's charms, however, the island's hoteliers are doing very poorly at the moment.
"I don't see any hotel boom right now," says Peter Howard, general manager of Stonehaven Villas, an upscale resort on the south end of Tobago where a night at any of the property's 14 luxurious villas costs $350 in summer, $550 in winter. He worries that the average occupancy rate for the island's 1,500 hotel rooms may not even climb above 50% this year.
"This has been one of the worst seasons Tobago has experienced in several years," Howard told The STAR, citing inadequate airlift capacity and limited government funding for tourism promotion as the chief culprits. "The problem with Hilton is that it was delayed for so long. That turned off all the other operators. Now that it's up and running, it will certainly be an asset in that it's a big name, and through its advertising worldwide, will expose Tobago very favorably. We like to think that in 2002, things will turn around."
The Hilton is owned 51% by the government of Trinidad and Tobago, 30% by Tobago Plantations Ltd. (itself a 50-50 venture between Trinidadian giants Guardian Life and Angostura Ltd.) and 19% by Hilton International.
Inaugurated in November by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, the hotel is part of the 750-acre Tobago Plantations development, which includes a 90-acre natural lagoon, a 5,000-foot-long beach and a 60-acre protected mangrove forest. Nearly 2,000 people were interviewed for 280 staff positions at the hotel, says Weinlaender, adding that "for political reasons, the majority of our employees are Tobagonians. This was a very politically correct move, and has proved very successful."
Published nightly rates for the Hilton Tobago range from $255 to $350 for rooms and $450 to $700 for suites. Trinidadian nationals pay only $89 a night, however, and since most of the clientele at the moment are Trinidadians, that brings the actual average room rate down to $110 (excluding the mandatory 21.5% in government taxes and service charges).
Weinlaender says he'll probably close his first year at 40% occupancy, rising to 55-60% in 2002 and 80% in 2003.
"We suffered tremendously because of that one-year delay," he said. "This hotel was meant to open in November 1999. We spent all our advertising money a year in advance, and we ended up blowing all that money out the window," said Weinlaender. "Everybody needed building materials, but there's only one ferry linking the two islands. We also underestimated our labor requirements, and we had problems with the contractor. One thing which threw the hotel back three or four months was the eight days of nonstop rains. Eventually we opened, but a year behind schedule."
Weinlaender says that in addition to the Hilton, the Tobago Plantations development will encompass two more big-name hotels. One will have 150 rooms and the other 100, but Weinlaender says he doesn't know which chains will operate them.
Besides the hotels, the complex will boast a 27-hole championship golf course by February 2002; also on the drawing board is a 120-slot marina, a shopping mall and, inexplicably, a plastic-surgery clinic.
"We don't know what they're planning, but there might be, in total, five more hotels built in Tobago," he said. "There's a Four Seasons in the pipeline, for which Angostura has bought land near Pigeon Point. And Four Seasons would not go below 200 or 300 rooms."
Asked if big properties such as the Hilton are appropriate for a laid-back island like Tobago, Weinlaender had this to say: "If you look at the style of the building, it blends in. It's not a high-rise. Every room has its balcony with a private view of the sea. People love this hotel."
Yet for those who don't, there are options.
Two of the newest are Stonehaven Villas and Blue Haven Hotel, both of which opened their doors last December.
Stonehaven, located just outside the village of Black Rock, offers spectacular views of Buccoo Reef in the distance. It adjoins the Grafton Estate bird sanctuary with its forest trails and afternoon bird-feeding, and boasts excellent facilities for corporate and family entertaining.
Howard says the resort -- jointly owned by 14 Trinidadian, Canadian and European investors -- is currently running 30% occupancy. Stonehaven was built by the same developers who constructed Plantation Beach Villas about 10 years earlier; that property, a five-minute drive up the hill from Stonehaven, offers six beautifully landscaped villas designed in colonial-style architecture, at $420 to $650 a night, depending on season.
Nearby is the Blue Haven Hotel, overlooking a beach where, according to author Daniel Defoe, explorer Robinson Crusoe was stranded on Sept. 30, 1659.
Raj Boodram, assistant manager at Blue Haven, says occupancy has been around 40% since the property's reopening six months ago.
"This hotel was part of Fort King George. We even have one cannon on site," he said as he recently took a group of travel writers around on a tour of the property. "It was built in the late 30s and early 40s. In those days, the hotel was composed of 27 rooms, and we had the biggest swimming pool in the Caribbean. This hotel also had the first elevator in Tobago."
The property is located along a beach where, according to author Daniel Defoe, explorer Robinson Crusoe was stranded on Sept. 30, 1659.
Among its 51 luxury suites are Room 20, the "Rita Hayworth Room," and Room 30, the "Robert Mitchum Room." Boodram doesn't fail to show the group the Terrace Bar, "which was trashed by Robert Mitchum."
Last year, after lying dormant for about 25 years, owners Karl and Marilyn Pilstl completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of the Blue Hotel and re-opened it to rave reviews, including a glowing mention in the July 2001 issue of Condé Nast Traveler.
"The additions feature a floating roof, which traps the air and allows it to pass through the building, cooling it, so you don't use much energy for air-conditioning," says Boodram, adding that "we do weddings at Blue Haven. If people come to the island and stay at least three days, they can get married."
Howard says the arrival of big international hotel chains won't threaten small properties like Stonehaven, providing it's not overdone.
"As long as their image is similar to quality products like Four Seasons, I see absolutley nothing but positives coming out of it," he said. "Putting in five-star hotels would only benefit us, because it will assist us in our airlift."
On that score, two local airlines announced in late June that they'd make an additional 1,340 seats available on flights between Trinidad's Piarco International Airport and Tobago's Crown Point International Airport. Starting this month, BWIA will operate 38 weekly flights, while another airline will operate 56 weekly runs, for a total of 94 weekly flights.
Howard says American Eagle is talking about offering direct flights from San Juan to Tobago, while Weinlaender says he's pushing the Trinidadian government to drop passport requirements for U.S. citizens; neither has happened yet.