The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Tobago tourism industry hard, with over $80 million in losses expected for the first half of the year, amid the global crisis.
This is according to CEO of the Tobago Tourism Agency Ltd (TTAL) Louis Lewis. He said between February and the end of June, 2020, the island would have suffered millions of dollars in lost revenue. With the closing of borders, there has been no movement or traffic of tourists.
In an interview with Express Business, Lewis stressed that proactive and efficient measures are being put in place to boost the now hard-hit tourism sector.
He said it has been a very difficult time for the tourism sector since the first case of COVID on March 12, and more so when the borders closed on March 23.
Lewis noted that the decision taken by Government to close the borders was a wise one in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
During an address to the nation on Saturday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said the borders will remain closed until the Government is satisfied that other countries have a steady handle on their case loads and Trinidad and Tobago can confidently welcome travellers from heavily affected areas.
Lewis said when the borders re-open, not just in T&T but globally, it is going to take the tourism industry until the end of 2021 to start recovering from the revenue loss as a result of the pandemic.
“What you’ll see happening after COVID, is tourists booking differently, going to places less crowded and heading to a unique destination such as Tobago. This now gives TTAL the opportunity to rigorously market the island and what it has to offer to the visitors who are looking for that memorable getaway.”
Lewis said it’s against this background that TTAL launched a digital campaign called “Dreaming of Tobago”.
“After a ‘soft launch’ at the beginning of April, in May 2020 the Tobago Tourism Agency Limited officially launched the #DreamingOfTobago initiative with a short teaser video introducing the campaign on it online platforms. Featuring stunning aerial and underwater footage of unspoilt Tobago, the video invites the online travel community to join the conversation and share their memories using the official hashtag #DreamingOfTobago, while spreading a message of hope and keeping the passion for travel alive,” Lewis said.
He continued: “Our intention with this campaign is to keep our global travel community connected and inspired with memories of experiences in destination Tobago. ‘Dreaming of Tobago’ provides a platform for sharing, connecting, and collectively anticipating the future when visitors are able to travel to unspoilt, untouched, undiscovered Tobago once again.”
Lewis pointed out that before Covid, the tourism industry was looking poised for significant growth and this is because of the new marketing strategy that has been adopted since the inception of TTAL in 2017.
Looking post-COVID, the TTAL CEO said he expects to see an increase in domestic travel in the first phase, as international tourists will be sceptical to travel for the first few months.
“We are fortunate to have a domestic market, so the first wave of visitors will be from Trinidad and we at the Tourism Agency are preparing our tools for promoting Tobago, as soon as movement is permitted.”
However, Lewis said when the industry restarts it is critical that all stakeholders adhere to the precautionary sanitary guidelines outlined by the Ministry of Health, to ensure that all visitors remain safe in Tobago.
“It is a continued national effort for preservation of the economic opportunities that will come, once the borders are open.”
He stated that the second of wave of visitors would come from the regional market and then the international market.
“Visitors have to get accustomed to the new normal before the tourism industry starts to enjoy the revenue it was once accustomed to.”
On how the Government can help kick-start the tourism industry, Lewis said there must be a collaborative effort between the stakeholders and the administration for adjustments to be made to help rejuvenate revenue streams.
Asked whether the Tobago hotel, bed and breakfast establishments have received the $50 million from Government for upgrades to weather the impact of Covid-19, Lewis said some procedural matters are being discussed at the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) level and details regarding the utilisation of the funds would be announced soon.
With the immediate impact of the stay at home orders to help flatten the curve, along with the closure of borders, hundreds of people who worked in hotels, tour trips, water excursions, dive activities have lost their jobs, due to zero activity in Tobago, Lewis said.
During Saturday’s address the Prime Minister did not indicate when hotels would be allowed to reopen their doors.
In a recent news release, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) stated that 69 per cent of Caribbean hotels now closed are looking to reopen between now and the end of July, once borders are reopened.
The Association further stated that intra-Caribbean business and leisure travel is expected to return first, followed by land-based travel from the US and Canada, then from Europe, while the return of cruise travel is expected to take at least ten months.
“Recovery is expected to be gradual, with 28 per cent expressing confidence in a tourism turnaround beginning by the end of 2020 but most anticipating the beginning of a significant turnaround to take longer, into the first half of 2021,” CHTA added.
On the issue of consultations and a recovery plan for the industry, Lewis noted that TTAL has been participating in webinars with the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) along with other tourism agencies as to how the region is going to be marketed post COVID.
“There is a necessity to promote the Caribbean as a region, because in the last few years, the Caribbean has become an important destination with people traveling from other parts of the world, to see what islands have to offer.”
The Government and the Ministry of Health received high marks from the TTAL CEO for its handling of the virus.
“The steps that they have taken were definitely in the right direction; the closure of the borders at the right time. The protocols implemented for health, have yielded results, in terms of containing the spread of the virus,” he said.
As of Monday May 11, the number of persons in Tobago testing positive for coronavirus was five, one person has died and three have since been discharged.
—Story originally appeared in the Trinidad Express