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Raffique Shah


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Tourism down, Carnival dying

By Raffique Shah
February 01, 2009

Politicians are wont to making the damnedest statements. This ugly trait is not confined to Trinidad and Tobago's special breed that litters the political landscape. The recently booed-out-of-office US president George W Bush carved an unmatched record of making the stupidest remarks, maybe of all times. But among the lot that currently vie for media space in this country, we have some gems-or maybe that should be "fools' gold".

Sometime early last year, shortly after he took office as Minister of Tourism, Joseph Ross made the bold pronouncement: this country will experience a leap in tourist arrivals in 2008. As I listened to Ross, I asked myself: where he come from Mars, or what? The global economy was already showing signs of decline: the prognosis, according to global economic pundits, was not good. In fact, the plunge from boom to recession shocked even them.

Tourism, while it is a big industry worldwide, is also one of the most fickle because it relies heavily on people's disposable incomes. Caribbean tourism depends on how well North America and Europe are doing, since they comprise the largest source of our tourists. In 2007 the housing bubble in both continents burst. That left millions of potential tourists homeless, or fighting to keep their roofs over their heads. Then the financial crisis and the global economic crisis hit. Millions lost their jobs in 2008.

Any fool knows that the first cutback people in dire financial straits make is in discretionary spending. Travel and holidaying in exotic destinations are the first casualties of any economic crisis. So where was Minister Ross seeing these "thousands and thousands of tourists" coming from? He sounded much like Mervyn Assam did when the UNC government staged the Miss World competition here, promising not only an overabundance of tourist-arrivals, but huge investments by Donald Trump.

The UNC government did not heed advice to not waste money on that exercise in futility, so it has no moral authority now to ask the present government to postpone the two major conferences scheduled for this year.

Still, it boggles the informed mind as to how Ross could arrive at the conclusions he did. Months later, wearing a "Sad Sack" face, he tells the population that tourist arrivals are down, even for Carnival. Indeed, he was still not facing reality. The Economist reported last week: "The hotel association in Tobago says that only one bed in three is occupied." That is probably the worst Tobago has experienced in decades. And it will not get better anytime soon. Only the very wealthy (fewer in numbers nowadays) can afford Caribbean hotels' rates, not to add prohibitive inter-islands air fares.

I did some checking online and came up with startling numbers on hotels' rates. Whereas in Orlando one can get three-star accommodation for two persons at an average of US$60-$80 per night, in Barbados the average is $120-$200, Curacao $300, Jamaica $120, Tobago $250 and at the highly-touted Hyatt Regency, you pay the princely sum of $300-plus per night, all in US dollars. Now, in this global "guava season", who the hell will leave Germany or LA or Quebec, travel to the Caribbean only to pay through their noses for sand, sea and poor-quality service?

But that is only part of the problem. Lest the government feels that lowering hotel rates will help, ministers should check this. The Daily Telegraph, following the brutal rape of two Englishwomen in Tobago last October, an incident that followed the murder of a Swedish couple, wrote: "These brutal attacks on visitors will definitely have an adverse affect on tourism," said Carol Ann Birchwood-James, the President of the Tobago Hotel Association.' It continued: "You should be aware that there are high levels of violent crime, especially shootings and kidnappings," the Foreign Office warns. "British nationals have been victims of violent attacks, particularly in Tobago where law enforcement is weak."'

If you ask National Security Minister Martin Joseph, he would tell you "crime will be brought under control this year." It's precisely what he said last year and the year before. But I shift gears: Culture Minister Marlene McDonald stated only weeks ago that "this Carnival will be the biggest ever", boasting that "all bands are sold out!" Last Thursday night she ate her words when she admitted that bands are seeing hell selling costumes.

I don't know if part of her mandate is to assess exactly where Carnival is heading. One bandleader lamented, "Today we hardly see spectators." True. My family and I are part of the "dropouts". And I'll tell the minister, bandleaders and musicians why. Why should I endure traffic and parking horrors to watch half-naked 'bumsees', no costumes, and be subjected to jarring, repetitious noise that passes for music?

The last time I enjoyed a Road March was when Shadow sang "Tourist" in 2001. Today, both Carnival and its music are a shadow of what used to be. The tourists? If they seek nudity and lasciviousness, they would find it more easily and cheaply at Jamaica's Negril beach, or in any of the French islands in the Caribbean.

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