Unlike many of its regional neighbors, Trinidad and Tobago is not economically dependent upon tourism. Out of the last 20 years, there have only been three years where the sector has made up a significant portion (10 percent or more) of the country’s total gross domestic product (GDP): in 1997, 1998 and 2001.
Currently making up 8.4 percent of national GDP, the country is not at an historic low or high, with international tourist arrival numbers ebbing back and forth in the 400,000-plus range over the past five years. And in spite of popular thinking that Carnival would be the biggest draw to the twin-island nation, tourists from abroad only slightly peak in February and the rest of the year has fairly even arrival numbers.
Sources for tourists are predominantly in North America - making up almost three-quarters of all international arrivals - with the United States leading at 39 percent, followed by the rest of the Caribbean region at 19 percent and Canada at 13 percent.
With almost half of these international arrivals being friends and family - ostensibly the Trinbagonian diaspora coming back for semi-regular visits to relatives for holidays - the country has a stable source foundation for international arrivals and at the same time an opportunity at increasing the share of other categories. Leisure makes up less than a quarter of visits from abroad along with business or conventions, while Carnival surprisingly only accounts for two percent of all travel to Trinidad and Tobago throughout the year.
While the country’s far-flung location at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles (quite literally the southeastern corner of North America itself) has been a burden for attracting the frequently Miami-based cruise lines, growth has been rising in total cruise passengers. In particular, Tobago has benefited dramatically more than Trinidad due to its more typically Caribbean geography and closer proximity to the rest of the Lesser Antilles, with total cruise passenger numbers growing by 213 percent two years ago versus Trinidad’s 13 percent growth.
Highlighted as one of the key areas of investment by the Rowley administration in 2015 - along with agriculture and manufacturing - the effort to revitalize and further develop Trinidad and Tobago’s tourism sector is being spearheaded by the Ministry of Tourism (MoT) and its implementation arm the Tourism Development Company (TDC). Focused on collecting more data to better analyse key performance indicators of the sector and establishing differentiated marketing, the MoT has a multi-pronged approach to boosting tourism.
Due to the country’s unique geographic location, ecotourism is being increasingly seen as a selling point for the sector. Between 80 percent of all endangered leatherback turtles nesting in Trinidad’s northeastern coast and both islands having more than 450 species of birds, the country can capitalise on making observation of these fauna a memorable experience for international tourists. To further this growth of “green” tourism, the Sustainable Ecotourism Trail Development Project was established in 2015 to create 1,000 kilometres of hiking trails through rehabilitated forestland. Running mainly through Trinidad’s ecologically diverse Northern Range, it will also include biking trails as it traces paths through mountainous rainforests to the coastline.
Key to the MoT’s strategy is encouraging private growth in a number of niche tourism markets, so as not to just go after the typical leisure market segment seen throughout the Caribbean, especially in the wake of the Cuban market opening up more to the United States. Part of this can be seen in the effort toward leveraging Piarco International Airport and A.N.R. Robinson International Airport’s significant connectivity for the region with North American and European population centres for the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) segment. With Robinson in Tobago having access to London, Frankfurt and New York markets, and Piarco additionally connecting with Panama City, Houston, Miami, Toronto and other regional cities, the country is well-positioned to draw more convention traffic as long as hotel infrastructure and capacity can accommodate its needs. Opening up South American flying routes, especially to Colombia and Brazil, also has potential for their growing economies, how relatively untapped these routes are currently, and Trinidad and Tobago’s convenient halfway position between the Americas.
Consequently, further developing multiple segments will have knock-on effects for others as international travellers discover one while coming to the country for another, which is especially true for Carnival. However, having one of the most distinctive celebrations of the two to three-day festival unfortunately does not speak for itself. To this end, the MoT is marketing the country as the “culture capital of the Caribbean” to celebrate and take advantage of its unique music, food and diversity in its culmination as the ‘biggest party on Earth’ on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday every year.
With a renewed focus, greater cooperation with the Tobago House Assembly, better marketing and a multi-pronged approach to incremental segment growth, Trinidad and Tobago has set realistic and realisable goals for promoting the country as a one-of-a-kind tourist destination.