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Raffique Shah


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Give Tobago full independence

By Raffique Shah
April 25, 2018

I've had it up to here (Shah motions his right palm one inch above his five-foot, six-and-a-half-inches-frame) with the cantankerous complainers from the island of Tobago who, seemingly every day, appear on multiple media forums to cuss Trinidadians in general, and the Government in particular, for failing to provide them with heavily subsidised services, be it ferry or air transport, medical or education facilities.

With apologies to my many Tobagonian friends who are not to be categorised with the aforementioned ingrates, do you know what it's like to wake up on mornings, switch on your television or radio, and be assaulted by vitriol from Watson "To-bear-go" Duke on one channel, a fulminating business-woman Diane Hadad on another, and sundry others every which way you click?

It's audio-visual torture.

Over the past year, Tobagonians have justifiably complained about the virtual collapse of the sea-bridge, a disaster for which the Keith Rowley administration must be blamed, whoever or whatever may have actually caused the debacle. There can be no explanation for The Warrior Spirit spending nine months under major repairs-and still emerging with defects, except, perhaps, that the job was given to a quack. Nor can there be explanations for the T&T Express being run aground, almost literally, until it was forced onto the dry-dock.

But the griping continues even as the refurbished Warrior Spirit returns to service, and the new Galleon Passage is on its way (knock water!) to join the fleet. The national airline performed admirably during the crisis to help ease the situation, flying passengers almost for free between the islands, only to face unwarranted criticisms.

I know the culprits will say they need to travel to Trinidad for goods and essential services that they cannot access in Tobago, and people like me could talk, or write, because we don't face the horrors they do. I concede they are partly correct. I however argue that in large measure, Tobagonians are architects of their own over-dependence on Trinidad.

What does Tobago produce that can be quantified as its contribution to the country's (Trinidad & Tobago) gross domestic product? Once upon a time, before the island descended into a URP-like syndrome, its farmers cultivated crops such as vegetables, ground provisions, fruits and legumes, and reared livestock that yielded dairy products and meats, all of which partly met its local requirements, with the surplus exported to Trinidad.

For many years now, food production has declined to negligible quantities. In fact, one Tobago Chamber spokesperson, complaining about the effects of the sea-bridge collapse, said it negatively impacted the island's regular supply of perishable agricultural produce from Trinidad!

Its main source of revenue comes from tourism. But when last did Tobago attract large numbers of international visitors? The answer to this question varies, depending on who you ask. Hoteliers claim their occupancy rates are down to as low as 35 percent. The Tobago House of Assembly's Secretary for Tourism, Tracy Davidson-Celestine, said in March 2016 that annual arrivals had risen to 590,000, but that included Trinidadians, who, before the local economy nose-dived and the sea-bridge collapsed, comprised the bulk of visitors, hence negligible foreign exchange.

What is certain is that Tobago has not benefitted from unprecedented growth in Caribbean tourism, which saw stay-over arrivals surpass 29 million for the first time in 2016, and visitor spend top US $35.5 billion (according to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation). Note that this surge started before the sea-bridge collapse.

Tobago is costlier than most other Caribbean destinations, service is poor, its airport terminal is primitive, and because it is guaranteed substantial budgetary support from the Central Government (approximately $5 billion annually), why waste time wooing tourists?

So whatever Duke, Hadad and others may mouth off on, casting full blame on Port of Spain and Trinidad, the harsh reality is that besides "bene balls" and an annual goat race, Tobago has very little to add to T&T's GDP, and a whole lot to subtract from it.

Which is why I propose we give Tobago full independence. And I insist that we be very considerate in letting them paddle their own boat, no pun intended.

For example, we give them, for free, the three ferries, one new, two fully refurbished, letting them take charge of the inter-islands service. Give them, too, all five ATR prop-jets from the Caribbean Airlines fleet, and throw in a Boeing 737 as a bonus. Give them, too, the State's stake in the Magdalena hotel (but we do not invest in Sandals), the Cove Estate complete with the new power plant, and other real estate and fixed assets we may have there.

Also, we commit ourselves to continue funding a now-independent Tobago at the current level (four percent of annual budgetary expenditure) for, say, three years. Thereafter, the subvention is reduced, and cut completely in six years. To be fair to Tobagonians, and to make independence more attractive, for any oil or gas deemed to come from their territorial waters based on international maritime boundaries, we pay them well-head prices.

The above arrangements are far, far superior to what Britain gave T&T when it granted us independence in 1962.

I'm sure Prime-Minister-in-waiting, Watson Duke, must be drooling over the spoils of office, and other leaders who feel they can restore paradise are licking their chops.

So am I, and, I imagine, most Trinis: not having to wake up with Watson barking inside our homes is priceless.

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