Talking Trinidad Tourism With the TDC’s Cornell Buckradee

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - January 21, 2013

Above: Cornell Buckradee (CJ Photo)

By Alexander Britell

PARADISE ISLAND — Trinidad began to see growth out of the downturn in 2011, with 2012 showing similar improvement. But the Caribbean tourism market faces challenges to return to its pre-2008 levels. To learn more about the state of the sector in Trinidad, Caribbean Journal talked to Cornell Buckradee, the general manger of the Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Development Company, about the impact of the German market on Tobago, sourcing travelers from India and the biggest challenge for growth.

What are the major trends in Trinidad’s tourism sector today?

What we’ve noticed is that the estimates we’ve confirmed for 2012 is that we’ve seen an increase over 2011, and that continued a trend of 2011. We are now out of flat-lining, and we are now into the good phase in a sustained way. That growth is coming out of the US market, out of the Caribbean market and we are finally seeing some other markets that have been in negative stages are coming out of that. The key one for us is Germany. Our estimates are that Germany is up maybe 8 to 10 percent for 2011-2012, and that is great, because we went into the last year believing that Germany had underperformed for us as a market with a tremendous amount of potential, and that we needed to go in there and mine it. We did it with a lot of help from the private sector, properties like Magdalena Grand, and that is one of the reasons why we’ve seen that level of growth out of the German market. I must remind you, though, that Germany has, in the past, performed very well for Trinidad and Tobago.

Why is that the case?

I think there has been a love affair between Germans and the island of Trinidad and Tobago in particular. They come to Tobago and they fall in love with the island. What we’ve found is that love has translated into a number of things — a large number of repeat visitors, but they’ve also bought property on the island. And after 2008, we saw declines in all markets, and we’ve been looking at how to reverse those declines. Finally, we’ve seen, in markets like Germany, that decline has reversed and now we’re into positive territory.

You mentioned Tobago. Do you see it has having real potential?

Absolutely. And let me quote some figures. In 2005, Tobago saw 85,000 visitors. There was a period of sustained decline, where Tobago is somewhere around 30,000 visitors today. But at one time, just recently, Tobago was getting 55,000 more visitors. So when we talk about the potential of Tobago, we’ve lived it. It has a tremendous amount of potential. We just need to get back to the days when it was doing 85,000 visitors.

More and more tourism officials talk about the Latin American market. Trinidad is in close proximity to Venezuela. Are you working on tapping that market?

I think in the short-to-medium term, we can’t ignore Central and South America. We can’t ignore Latin America. The challenges that we have are one, airlift, and two, in certain instances, we have the language barrier. Neither of those are insurmountable. But what I mean is that, in the short term, we are not going to deliver substantial numbers out of those markets. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and, in the medium term, there’s no doubt that Trinidad and Tobago can get substantial visitors. Aruba gets tremendous visitors out of Venezuela, from three or four different segments. So there’s no reason why Trinidad and Tobago can’t tap into that kind of market. Again, it will take resources and a bit of perseverance. But we’ve got to do that.

What kind of hotel development is in the works in Trinidad?

There are a couple. At the very base of that, Trinidad and Tobago has a very competitive range of fiscal incentives to support hotel development: tax holidays, duty concessions on what you need to build and outfit hotels, and added fiscal benefits like accelerated depreciation that kicks in after the tax holiday, along with capital allowances that kick in after the holiday as well. If you build a hotel in Trinidad, you could be free of taxes for a minimum of 12 years.

Is there a niche within the tourism sector that has the most potential?

I think in addition to what we’ve been pursuing, I think there’s a particular niche that we think we can yield visitors in substantial numbers, and that is sports tourism. In Trinidad especially, we’ve got a plan to support it. We’ve got stadia that can host cricket, football and track and field. One of the things worth noting is that over the last year, we’ve established, for the first time ever, a sports tourism department in the Tourism Development Company. And that department is specifically geared up to take advantage of sporting opportunities such as hosting the different games that will bring a couple of thousand people at a time incrementally to the destination.

What are your other major priorities?

In the broadest sense, we want to get back to the numbers we were seeing in 2005, which is roughly 463,000 visitors. In fact, the stated goal of the Minister is to move that number up to 500,000 within the shortest space of time. So broadly, this is the objective. How do we get there? We’ve go to do what we do, but do it much better, and tap into the new segments such as sports. But if you’re going to tap into new geographic segments also. We’ve got to target new markets such as Brazil, outside of the region, such as India and China.

Trinidad PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar made a high-profile visit to India at the beginning of 2012. Do you think that can become a source market for the country?

India is a potential source market. What I’ll tell you is that the Minister of Tourism actually conducted a mission to India in January 2011. Following that, in September, we actually hired and have engaged now overseas representatives of Trinidad based in Mumbai. So they’ve been working the last year and a half. So yes, we view India as one of those potential markets. There are some fundamental things that need to be addressed, such as airlift, between India and Trinidad and Tobago. You’ve got to go to London or to New York and fly down, and that poses a problem time-wise, and it’s expensive. So there are some hurdles that you need to overcome. But the potential for the market is not lost on us. We do understand at the broadest level that our competition is already in India, looking at the market, and you don’t ignore a billion people.

What are Trinidad’s biggest tourism challenges?

I think the biggest challenge that we’re facing is the global economic downturn. Since 2008, you’ve had all of our major markets, including the US, in an economic tailspin. I don’t think that anybody in 2013 can say with any degree of certainty that we’re out of the woods. I think if you look at the UK, which is a major market for us, they’re still sorting out of their economy, and that is really impacted by other countries in the Eurozone. Then we have the US, that is seeing glimmers of recovery, but it’s not as certain as one would like and hasn’t restored confidence in the population to the point where they’re traveling the way they used to pre-2008. So if I would point to a major hurdle to tourism growth, it’s the global economy.

But you’re more bullish now than two years ago.

Absolutely. As I told you, in 2012, we recorded a second-consecutive year of growth in arrivals, after maybe five years of decline.

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