Sandals pledges to be good for Tobago
By Tony Fraser
Caribbean resort chain Sandals is preparing to expand its empire once again by opening its 16th resort – and its first on the island of Tobago.
But not all the locals are happy at the news that the region’s only major luxury holiday operator is planning to site its newest complex on Buccoo Beach.
In fact, a petition calling on the Tobago House of Assembly to disclose full details of the deal and host public consultations has already attracted more than 2,000 signatures.
As a result, the chief executive of the Sandals group, Adam Stewart – son of the chain’s owner Gordon, known as “Butch” – has been making efforts to reassure anxious Tobagonians.
At the recent State of the Industry Conference (SOTIC) of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) in Barbados, Mr Stewart told Caribbean Intelligence© that, if the deal is agreed, Sandals will provide 1,800 new jobs, work with the local manufacturing and farming sectors and provide tertiary-level educational opportunities for workers.
Going local in Tobago
Environmental groups and fishermen’s associations have expressed concerns about ecological damage and the impact on Tobagonians’ livelihoods.
At the same time, tourism economist Dr Auliana Poon, while very supportive of the chain coming to Tobago, urges robust negotiations.
But Mr Stewart is insistent that Tobago will receive a good deal: “We will forecast what we buy in the local manufacturing market and from local farmers, and we will show the overall economic impact the project will have on the national economy,” Stewart told Caribbean Intelligence©.
He says the reason why the Trinidad & Tobago government and Sandals “have not been able to publish an agreement of the project is because we have not had an agreement yet, we are simply having a discussion”.
He says the agreement will come from a process of discussion with the government, the business community, farmers and the general population of Tobago. Mr Stewart subsequently visited Tobago had an all-day discussion with the government and stakeholder groups.
However, after a long presentation of the outline for a 1,000-room resort, there remained questions from the group known as Environment Tobago.
“We certainly did not all agree on the presentation. Sandals, the Government and Tobago House of Assembly (THA) did not come clean. We are planning a meeting next month to deal with facts and scientific data for this project, which we would submit to the government,” said Patricia Turpin, leader of the group.
The Secretary for Tourism and Transportation in the THA, Tracy Davidson-Celestine, told Caribbean Intelligence© that the meeting had been organised to allow Mr Stewart to interact with the people of Tobago.
Reports say that the proposed site for the resort includes “No Man’s Land” - a secluded piece of environmentally pristine piece of land that is a popular spot with locals.
However, Mrs Davidson-Celestine said that nothing had been settled and noted that the area in question had several portions of prime lands.
Mr Stewart said that Tobago had not originally been under consideration by Sandals, but the hotel resort chain had responded to an invitation from Prime Minister Keith Rowley.
“We went there, toured the island and loved what we saw,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©. “We are very close with a lot of the businesses within the country and I think the country should have concerns about what is to be done on the island.”
Taking part in small societies
One noted small hotelier, Allan Clovis, has backed the arrival of Sandals, saying it will benefit everyone, including small hotels.
For his part, Mr Stewart is also keen to stress that tourism as a whole can benefit from his chain’s resorts.
Using the example of Exuma, a tiny island in the Bahamian chain of islands, as an example of the power of the Sandals brand, Mr Stewart said: “We bought a failed Four Seasons resort there. When Sandals went in there, we got direct flights, jet service, A320s from Toronto to Exuma.
“Sixty per cent of persons on the airplanes are not our customers, they are the people who are renting the villas. We got Delta to fly there, we got American Airlines to put jet service in there and the economic influx that can come when jet service becomes easy, all tides rise.”
He said that, when Sandals goes into a market, the resort “does not seek to do anything but participate in the best way possible and this is what I will say when I get to Tobago”.
Mr Stewart said that the resort will fully underwrite employees studying for an associate degree to a PhD.
“We are very positive, we think negotiations are moving well. There is a beautiful spirit in the room, but I want to reassure the people of Trinidad and Tobago that they will know every single aspect of our negotiations and when we say this is the economic footprint of our agreement, here is what you will get out of it and that is what you should focus on,” he added.
Raising the bar
“The presence of a Sandals chain in Tobago will raise the bar on tourism in the island,” said the managing director of Tourism Intelligence International, Dr Auliana Poon.
As for the possibility of Tobago not benefiting fully from the presence of the Caribbean hotel resort chain, Dr Poon said that “what you negotiate is what you get.”
Dr Poon, an economist, hotelier and Trinidad & Tobago national, said that it will be against the interest of Sandals to destroy the environment in Tobago.
“Tourists are today conscious about the environment and will simply not come to the hotel if the environment is being negatively impacted,” she told Caribbean Intelligence©.
A government team led by a former finance minister, economist Wendell Mottley, has been established by the government to negotiate the deal with Sandals.
Sandals’ possible entry in tiny Tobago could be an interesting development for the Caribbean hotel chain.