Tourism plays a significant role in Trinidad and Tobago’s economy. But unlike much of the rest of the Caribbean, where tourism is the most important industry, in T&T it is of secondary importance, behind the energy sector and on a somewhat lower level than financial services and manufacturing. Like Cuba, T&T differs from the rest of its Caribbean peers because it has a much more diversified economy.
This has created both advantages and disadvantages for the local tourism industry. Among the advantages, the economy as a whole is more resilient to cyclical downturns in visitor numbers. However, among the disadvantages, the local tourism sector does not always get the degree of focused government attention and support that it needs.
For the average tourist, the attractions of a Caribbean holiday are relatively simple, and, from the point of view of the host countries, relatively easy to market and promote. The essential proposition of “sun, sand and sea” is beautiful beaches, good food, nightlife and entertainment.
The Caribbean is particularly attractive to the nearby North American market, and particularly so during the northern hemisphere’s winter, with the peak tourist season being January to March. For this market a beach holiday in the Caribbean is only a few hours away by plane. Flights from Europe are longer haul, but T&T is still relatively accessible.
More than Sun, Sand & Sea
T&T partially meets the sun, sand and sea paradigm, but in another sense its appeal as a destination is much more varied, and in some ways more complex. It does offer the traditional Caribbean holiday that many visitors are looking for, particularly on the island of Tobago, which has outstanding natural beauty, and on the northern coast of Trinidad. However, its location at the southern end of the Caribbean archipelago, further away from airline and cruise ship transport hubs such as Miami, means it is not always at the top of the list for travellers seeking a Caribbean break.
However, T&T offers a wide range of other, different types of tourism. These include a significant flow of business travellers, linked to the country’s oil and gas business; one of the world’s major Carnivals (see analysis); yacht tourism; sports tourism, mainly linked to international cricket, but also other sports like track and field, cycling and swimming; cruise ship tourism (see analysis); ecotourism; and more niche markets such as medical tourism. A number of specialised local medical facilities, offering among other things neurosurgery, angioplasty and open heart surgery, already attract private patients from Guyana and some of the nearby Caribbean islands.
A further differentiating factor for T&T is that there is a significant diaspora of Trinbagonians living in North America and Europe, particularly the UK and Canada. As a result, visiting friends and relatives (VFR) is also an important component of the local tourism business. The country’s multicultural heritage is also a draw for visitors. All this produces a rich mix, meaning that there is strong potential for development, but also challenges to be faced in terms of how best to prioritise and market the local industry.
The main beach holiday destinations are located in Tobago, which features secluded beaches, quaint villages, private villas and award-winning eco-attractions. There are also popular beach destinations on the northern coast of Trinidad itself. In January 2015 Las Cuevas Beach was awarded the Blue Flag, an international “eco-label” given to beach and marina facilities that comply with criteria relating to environmental education and information, environmental management, water quality, safety and other services. The authorities said T&T was the only country in the southern English-speaking Caribbean to have a Blue Flag-certified beach.
Louanna Chai-Alves, executive director of the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants and Tourism Association, told OBG that business tourism linked to the oil and gas and financial sectors is the bedrock of the island’s incoming flow of visitors. But since 2007 hotel occupancy rates have fallen to 50-60%, down from 70-80%. This is due in part to the expansion of capacity, including the construction of the Hyatt Regency and Carlton Savannah, and the upgrade of the Hilton Trinidad, as well as slower growth in demand linked to the weaker global economy and the greater use of video-conferencing and new media. “In T&T we need to find new markets outside of business travel,” Chai-Alves told OBG.
She also suggested that one relatively quick form of diversification would be to further develop the conference and exhibition market, noting, however, that the country still has only one large convention hall. Chai-Alves added that it can take at least two years of preparatory work to attract a new business conference or convention.
The government has been enthusiastic about the potential for developing sports tourism, meaning the hosting of major sporting events that attract foreign visitors, particularly from other parts of the Caribbean and neighbouring markets such as North America. Brent Sancho, minister of sport, announced in February 2015 that the country would host seven Caribbean Premier League cricket matches, including the semi-finals and the final. “International franchise sport is a multibilliondollar industry, and I have made it a key part of my message to all of the sporting organisations that we must work together to make sports a business here in T&T,” the minister told local press.
A number of football matches are also held locally, and the government has been building new facilities, such as a cycling velodrome, aquatics centre and a national tennis centre.
An important niche market, yachting tourism is based around Chaguaramas and benefits from two competitive advantages. First, T&T is located below the Caribbean’s hurricane belt, providing a secure port of call during the hurricane season. Second, the Chaguaramas area has a concentration of marine skills, expertise and chandlery supplies to cover all necessary maintenance work.
Looking to Ecotourism
T&T has a number of ecotourism attractions that could form a basis for future development. The very nature of ecotourism means development has to be relatively small scale and carefully planned, but its local advocates note that it tends to attract more discerning visitors who are likely to spend more per head than mass tourists and certainly more than cruise ship visitors.
Stephen Broadbridge, who runs Caribbean Discovery Tours, an ecological and cultural tours agency, argues that T&T should not be chasing after mass tourism. Instead, he favours relatively smaller groups visiting the country’s tropical rainforests, and bird, butterfly and Leatherback sea turtle sanctuaries, including world-renown sites such as the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a nature resort in northern Trinidad. He added that some eco-tourists can spend up to $1000 more per visitor per trip than other types of tourists. Broadbridge is keen to underline the significance of T&T’s unexploited ecotourism potential, noting it has the greatest number of bird species per square mile anywhere in the world, the largest fresh and salt-water swamps in the Caribbean (Nariva and Caroni), old and diverse forests, and the largest population of nesting Leatherback turtles.
The Asa Wright Nature Centre was named by Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail as one of the best bird-watching destinations in the world in 2014. It was established as a not-for-profit trust in 1967 and has been considered a leader in ecotourism ever since. The reserve covered 607 ha of forested land in the Arima and Ariop Valleys in the north of Trinidad. Located on a former cocoa-coffee-citrus plantation, the centre and a number of small tour companies also organise excursions to the Caroni swamp and other destinations where large numbers of scarlet ibis roost at dusk, with some sections having a canopy of 45 metres. Some companies have developed a niche market organising working trips for university environmental studies students and researchers.
Tourism’s total contribution to GDP in 2013 was TT$4.63bn ($1.26bn), or 3.1%, and the industry directly and indirectly employed 27,500 people, or 4.5%, with this expected to rise to TT$6.19bn ($1.68bn) in 2024. According to the latest available figures, a total of 461,267 visitors came to T&T in 2014, which includes both air and sea arrivals, a fall of 1.2% from the previous year. Tourism is the top services sector revenue earner in the country. In 2013 it generated TT$4.75bn ($1.29bn) worth of receipts, equivalent to 4.8% of total exports.
A total of 412,447 visitors arrived in T&T by air in 2014, confirming a medium-term trend in recent years for visitors to the islands to fluctuate within a fairly constant band. That said, the 2014 total represented the second consecutive year of falling arrivals – a nearly 5% decline from the preceding year, after a 4.5% drop in 2013. In the past decade, arrivals have fluctuated between a low of 388,000 in 2010, reflecting the global slump in 2008-09, and a high of just over 460,000, which was achieved in 2004-05, before the financial crisis.
In 2014 most arrivals came from the US, with 161,538, or 39.1% of the total. The other key source markets were the Caribbean itself at 76,195 (18.5%), Canada with 54,877 visitors (13.3%), the UK with 37,473 (9.08%) and Venezuela with 21,052 (5.1%). Small but significant numbers of visitors also came from Germany (5154), France (4615), the Netherlands (4430) and China (3723). These sources represented less than 1.5% each of the total market. There were also small numbers of visitors from populous and geographically proximate countries such as Colombia (3036), Mexico (2032) and Brazil (1996).
Popular in the Caribbean
According to Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), in 2014 T&T was the fourth-largest visitor air destination in the English-speaking Caribbean behind Jamaica (2.08m visitors), Bahamas (1.42m) and Barbados (519,598). Confirming its relatively minor role in the regional tourism business, T&T represented 7% of total visitor air arrivals. In that same ranking, T&T was ahead of Saint Lucia (338,158), Belize (321,217), and Antigua and Barbuda (249,316). According to the CTO, T&T air arrivals had increased by 10.8% year-on-year in the first four months of 2015.
The data confirms some important differences in the pattern of T&T visitor arrivals relative to the rest of the Caribbean. First, the reasons for visiting the country are more varied. While a number of Caribbean islands are overwhelmingly holiday destinations, in T&T business tourism and VFR forms a large part of the mix, particularly in Trinidad. Tobago is more of a classic sun, sand and sea destination. Second, as evidenced by the importance of VFR, the Trinbagonian diaspora in North America and Europe is an important source of visitors.
According to 2010 figures from the Central Statistical Office, the latest year for which statistics were available, the largest group here was described as leisure, beach or vacation (45.6%), followed by VFR (25.2%) and business or convention (18%). The remaining smaller categories were other (8.8%), wedding or honeymoon (1.4%) and study (1.0%).
Also relevant is the breakdown of accommodation used by visitors. In 2010 the largest single group stayed in private homes (50.2%), followed by hotels (19.6%) and guesthouses (1.4%). There was also a large “other” category, which accounted for 28.7% of the total. As the survey was based on questionnaires filled out by arriving visitors, it is possible that a proportion of those who selected the “other” category were in fact staying in hotels or private homes. While this may not be the most accurate indicator of accommodation used by visitors, the high proportion staying in private homes is noteworthy and consistent with a large flow of visiting expatriates.
Airlift a Key Factor
An important factor driving tourism arrivals is the availability of direct flights to and from major markets. While in theory demand for travel can be expected to drive the availability of flights, in practice the relationship is not necessarily one way. The availability of a convenient and competitively priced airline service can help determine demand, and changes in routes and services can be significant. Dillon Alleyne, economic affairs officer for the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Port of Spain, told OBG that tourism will continue to be a big driver of regional Caribbean growth, but that “airlift will be a big issue, particularly if we are targeting new tourism flows from Latin America and China.” Alleyne also noted that Caribbean countries had yet to reach an open skies agreement, which he felt would be needed to help ease the airlift problem.
Various airlines connect North America and Europe to Trinidad’s main airport, Piarco International Airport (PIA), which is just outside Port of Spain. They include United Airlines, American Airlines and JetBlue from the US, Panama’s Copa Airlines and British Airways. Emmanuel Baah, the marketing manager at the Airport Authority of T&T, told OBG that PIA accommodates around 1.6m annual international passenger movements. There are some 800,000 annual passenger movements on the airbridge service linking Piarco to the A.N.R. Robinson International Airport in Tobago. In addition, Tobago receives some 40,000 annual direct arrivals, most of which were from the UK and Germany. “Most people assume Carnival is the busiest time here, but that is not the case,” Baah told OBG. “Our busiest periods are July-August and December. Carnival is busy, but the July-August and December peaks are because we have a lot of VFR traffic. About 30-35% of our passengers are travelling for business.” At PIA in Trinidad, Baah said it was projecting a 3% increase in international passenger arrivals during 2015.
In November 2014 British Airways said it would add an additional flight from London’s Gatwick Airport to Tobago, starting in spring 2015. The airline said the flight would also stop at Antigua and Barbuda, but if demand justified it, the airliner would consider a direct service to Tobago. Tracy Davidson-Celestine, the secretary for tourism and transportation in the Tobago House of Assembly, said, “This decision by British Airways to add the flight to Tobago is testimony to the confidence they have in the destination and is a credible sign that we are making progress with our tourism product.”
In the same month, one of British Airway’s main competitors, Virgin Atlantic, which had less than a year earlier stopped serving Tobago, said it would return, offering weekly departures between March and October, and twice-weekly departures between October and March. The flights will stop at Saint Lucia before continuing on to Tobago. Virgin’s decision came after another carrier, Monarch Airlines, decided to interrupt its long-haul flights to Tobago.
In another promising development in late January 2015 Brazilian budget airline Gol started a service from São Paulo to Tobago, which would also provide a stop in Barbados. The new route was seen as an opportunity to develop the South American market, which is largely untapped at present.
Chris James, chairman of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association, said at the beginning of the 2014/15 season that the island was entering the new cycle with the prospect of being well-served by airline connections. There were signs of an 8-9% increase in usage of the airbridge service between Trinidad and Tobago, James indicated, and there was also a positive outlook for long-haul flights from a range of carriers, including Apollo’s direct weekly service from Stockholm operated in the winters of 2013 and 2014, and Condor's service operating via Frankfurt in winter 2015. “This is going to mean that we have more seats coming into the islands than we have had for a number of years,” James said.
According to data from the Immigration Division at the Ministry of National Security, one in every five visitors to T&T comes from the Caribbean region. While this source of visitors can be volatile – depending on economic conditions and exchange rate movements across the region – it is also an important component of tourism demand. Expedia, an online travel agency, reported in December 2014 that intra-Caribbean travel had been growing strongly in the first nine months of that year. Expedia also stated that the top five destinations for Caribbean tourists within the region were the Dominican Republic, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico and T&T. Demetrius Canton, director of lodging partner services for Expedia, said growth could be “attributed to a range of factors including new connectivity, as well as hoteliers who are generating demand”. Expedia’s figures suggested that T&T was experiencing up to 40% growth in the number of inward-bound Caribbean tourists.
In April 2014 a new 243-room Radisson Hotel Trinidad was opened in central Port of Spain by the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group. The development also offers views of the capital city and the Gulf of Paria, and is equipped with a range of facilities, including a fitness centre, outdoor pool, business centre and restaurants. According to the Tourism Development Company (TDC), there are 5255 hotel rooms available in T&T, including 721 rooms in guest houses. Tobago contributes to this figure with 1813 rooms. International hotel companies with a local presence include InterContinental (using its Holiday Inn Express brand), Hilton, Best Western, Marriott (Courtyard Inn) and Hyatt. As more investment comes into the hotel sector, the stock of hotel rooms is expected to increase to 6000 by 2018, according to BMI’s “Caribbean Tourism Report”.
The government’s economic decentralisation strategy identifies the development of the Chaguaramas Peninsula northwest of Port of Spain as key driver of the country’s entertainment, recreational and culture industries. The area is overseen by the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA). In the past three years, the CDA has taken an active approach to attracting private investment for the development of the 6000-plus-ha peninsula. The flat land still to be leased and developed totals around 607 ha.
The project is guided by a recently launched 15-year master plan proposing the development of four main clusters, including: mixed-use entertainment; industry and innovation, with a focus on the maritime and yachting industries; marine eco-activity, including research and hospitality opportunities; and nature and recreation, with a particular focus on agri-tourism and art development. Three main projects are ongoing or being advertised for investment. First, the boardwalk area is being developed in a multi-phased approach, with completion expected in 2016, to facilitate the establishment of restaurants and other retail businesses. Second, in March 2015 the CDA announced it had leased the Chaguaramas Hotel and Convention Centre for a 30-year period to a hotel management company to develop and operate a four-star leisure hotel. Third, the 101-ha golf course is set to be renovated and converted into an 18-hole golf course with nearly 13 ha available for villas and a resort complex.
For around 10 years the World Economic Forum has published a “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report”, which is compiled every two years. The index is compiled by assessing a range of factors and policies that make it attractive to develop the travel and tourism sector in different countries. There are four main sub-indices: the regulatory framework sub-index, intended to capture government policies; the business environment subindex, described as “hard” elements; the human, cultural and natural resources sub-index, more likely to be “softer” elements; and infrastructure.
In the 2015 ranking T&T achieved an overall score of 3.7 (on a scale of 1 to 7), which placed it 69th out of 141 countries surveyed. For comparison, the best-performing country in the world was Spain, ranked first with a score of 5.3. Relative to the 2011 survey, when it had been ranked 79th out of 139, T&T had made significant improvement.
Within the Americas, T&T ranked 13th. The regional leader was the US (1st). Among geographically proximate peers, T&T was outranked by Barbados (7th), Panama (5th), Mexico (4th), Costa Rica (6th) and Puerto Rico (9th). In turn it was ahead of Jamaica (15th), Guatemala (16th), the Dominican Republic (17th), Honduras (18th), Nicaragua (20th), Suriname (22nd) and Guyana (23rd), among others.
Comparatively speaking, T&T ranked best for its infrastructure sub-index, placing 36th globally. More specifically, its tourist infrastructure achieved 35th place, with the number of ATMs that accept Visa cards per million first worldwide. This was followed by its enabling environment sub-index, ranked 77th in the world. It did least well in terms of its natural and cultural resources index, where it was ranked 113th.
Looking at the details of T&T’s regulatory framework sub-index, those areas where it was ranked higher than in the overall index included its international openness (56th) and price competitiveness (17th). However, it lagged in terms of safety and security (123rd), prioritisation of travel and tourism (123rd), and environmental sustainability (114th).
Interesting points from the other two sub-indices include an extremely good score for air transport infrastructure, where the country was ranked 28th. Less positively, T&T was ranked 83rd in terms of labour and 55th for ease of finding skilled workers.
The authorities are aware that making the country more attractive to tourists requires sustained improvements across the sector. The state-owned TDC has a mandate to “develop and market T&T’s tourism product and improve the local tourism sector”. Among various projects, the TDC seeks to improve skills and quality standards across a range of small enterprises. This initiative is known as the Small Tourism Enterprises Project and is carried out in partnership with the T&T Tour Guides Association.
T&T is also a member of the CTO, which has 30 member states. The CTO offers a range of tourism training courses and related certification. Following a January 2014 meeting with Hugh Riley, the CTO’s secretary-general, the then tourism minister of T&T, Chandresh Sharma, asked that the CTO’s suite of courses and certificates be tailored to meet local needs. Both men also highlighted the CTO’s new “Guespitality” programme, which is designed as a regional performance indicator that allows visitors to rate their experience and accommodation, restaurants, sites and attractions. One issue of concern for the local tourism industry is the perception of rising crime rates. While noting that crime data has recently shown a falling rather than a rising trend, the government has acknowledged the possible negative effect that media coverage may have on the country’s image and appeal to tourists abroad.
The outlook for the tourism sector is somewhat mixed. On the upside, the fall in international oil prices should aid the global economic recovery, which, in turn, will likely help to boost tourism demand. The effect of currency movements is not yet fully clear. To the extent that hotel and travel prices are fixed in US dollars, the expected appreciation of the US currency will have a broadly neutral effect on travel from North America, but could be negative for travellers from Europe, as the euro could slip against the dollar, reducing the purchasing power of tourists from the region.
A more substantial issue is that 2015 is an election year, and it will not be until 2016 at the earliest that the new government’s policies for the tourism sector will begin to emerge. In the medium term a strategic reassessment of tourism will likely be necessary. It is also clear that the broader Caribbean tourism industry may see some realignments, particularly in the light of rapprochement between the US and Cuba, which could result in a sharp increase in American travellers to that island.
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