Interview with Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Minister Stephen Cadiz

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Above: Port of Spain (CJ Photo)

By Alexander Britell

NEW YORK — Long the commodities hub of the Caribbean, Trinidad is now making a play to enter the region’s bread-and-butter market, tourism, in a big way. It’s a relatively new venture for a country that has generated one of the largest economies in the Caribbean harnessing oil and gas. Over the last year since his appointment, Tourism Minister Stephen Cadiz has been overseeing a large-scale marketing effort that will step up this year, looking to make Trinidad a player in the region’s fiercely competitive tourism sector. To learn more, Caribbean Journal spoke to Cadiz at Caribbean Week in New York about Trinidad’s new push, what makes Trinidad different from the rest of the region and the value of sustainable tourism.

Where is tourism in Trinidad and Tobago today compared to when you started?

I am very upbeat about Trinidad and Tobago. We are finally — I have been here a year — we’ve been all over, we’ve been selling Trinidad and Tobago at every opportunity we get. And I think the way in which we have been doing it, we go out and we interact with people — it’s not just about very nice glossy ads, it’s about really and truly meeting people and getting people to understand who we are and what it is we have to offer. And I think it has worked extremely well. When I first came in, we were very low down on the totem pole. And now, all of a sudden, I find there is so much being written about Trinidad and Tobago, so many reviews, a lot of chatter going on. We have the tour people on both sides of the Atlantic very upbeat about the product, we’re speaking to airlines about additional airlift coming into Trinidad and Tobago from both sides of the Atlantic. So I think, all in all, I’m pleased with how it’s gone, and looking forward to our new fiscal year, which starts in October, of really and truly increasing the speed tremendously in our whole marketing effort.

How do you differentiate Trinidad and Tobago within the Caribbean tourism market?

Trinidad and Tobago is a very, very unique destination, out of the 35 different territories of the Caribbean, because of where we are located. We are seven miles south of Venezuela, and just that alone tells you that we are part of the South American mainland. And therefore, when we start getting into eco-tourism and all of that, it’s just a whole different country that you’re in. And our people – I think our people are our main tourism product, because with our people comes festivals, comes food, comes the ethnicity, the religion, all of that creates a very wonderful, different product.

You mentioned eco-tourism – do you see sustainable tourism as the model for Trinidad going forward?

I think sustainable tourism is very high on the agenda for us. Because again, for the product, the natural product that we have, sustainable tourism is it. I look at the retention rate we have. For instance, it’s estimated that 70 cents on the dollar stays on island, because our hotels are owned locally, managed locally. The food that we serve in the hotels, a lot of it is local, and it’s all of those things that come together very nicely, which augurs well for the country. So again, it’s about increasing that figure, maybe to 80 cents on the dollar, and that makes for a really powerful tourism industry.

We often hear about Caribbean destinations marketing themselves as a unit – is that something Trinidad will work with?

I think it’s absolutely necessary that we sell the Caribbean first. And my idea is, we keep the Caribbean as the premier warm-weather destination, and, once a tourist decides, “I’m going to the Caribbean,” well, then I’m going to fight you. Then that’s where the fight comes in, to bring them to Trinidad and Tobago, rather than another territory. But the main thing is to get them into Trinidad and Tobago. And I think, for all of us, if we all have a successful tourism industry, that augurs well. Because one year, they’ll come to us in Trinidad and Tobago, the next year they’ll go to Jamaica, the next year the Bahamas, Antigua, Grenada, wherever. And with the island chain that we have that is so different, people will continue to come back once the experience is a good experience.

We hear a lot about Caribbean tourism tapping into Latin America. Does Trinidad’s proximity help that effort in an way?

I think Latin America is definitely a market that we want to see. I like to maximize what we have already. So we’re really and truly concentrating on North America, England, Scandinavia, Germany. Right now, that’s where our focus is. But, without a doubt, we’re looking to see what is the airlift going to be out of Latin America. Can we actually get an acceptable amount of airlift, which is of course the lifeblood of any tourism industry? If we don’t have the airlift, we don’t have anything. And right now, we don’t have the airlift out of Latin America. So that’s something we have to work on.

Do you have one primary goal for Trinidad’s tourism sector?

I think my first real goal is to get Trinidad and Tobago, our people, to understand the value of tourism. And I think if we get over that hurdle, then we’re home free – we’re on the wide and open road there just moving along. That really is a priority for us.