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(CMC) – Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley Thursday said he was “disappointed” that Sandals Resorts International (SRI) had decided to withdraw its participation in the establishment of a multi-million-dollar resort in Tobago.
Rowley said that his administration had hoped to lure Sandals to Tobago as a major global brand that would have significantly changed the tourism thrust on the sister isle.
He said the idea was “to have a brand that would bring to Tobago the kind of airlift that we wouldn’t have had to pay for in the models we have had been using for the last decades, which is to pay airlines to bring people, if people come to the airlines,” Rowley told reporters at a more than three-hour “conversation and an opportunity to engage with him on matters of national interest”.
“The last advice this government got is that we should spend about US$120 million on destination marketing. We could spend that money if we had it but there is no reasonable chance that that will turn around,” he said.
SRI Tuesday, citing “constant and ongoing negative publicity”, withdrew its participation in the project, with the chief executive officer of the Jamaica-based hotel chain, Gebhard Rainer, telling a news conference “we believe it is best at this point in time to withdraw Sandals from this project and focus our resources in the areas where we can be more effective”.
Rainer told reporters that the negative media coverage the company has received over the last two and half years while the negotiations had been ongoing with the Keith Rowley administration “for us as a global brand and for what we stand for…internationally is taking on a dynamic that we are not willing to carry on any longer”.
Last year, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said that the construction of the 750-room Sandals and Beaches Resort represented a major turning point for the economy of Tobago.
He said that the hotel would have been owned by Trinidad and Tobago and equity partners and is in keeping with the objectives of the newly established Tobago Tourism Agency.
“Within this framework, the Sandals Golden Grove Tobago Project represents a major turning point for the economy of Tobago. The Sandals and Beaches Resort will be built at Buccoo/Golden Grove,” Imbert said, adding that it will be managed and operated by SRI and that the resort would have approximately 500-750 rooms and up to 2,000 permanent employees with significant linkages to the local economy..”
Rowley said that misinformation about the Sandals involvement in the project “was available by the truckload” including reports printed in the media and propagated by persons opposed to the project that “Sandals will kill off the hotels in Tobago”.
“Many of you have been given the opportunity either in your own private capacity or through the Sandals initiative…taken to see what happens elsewhere in the Caribbean. Many of you would have heard persons who experienced the (Sandals) model in their territory and know that it is a classic case of a rising tide lifting all boats.
“Because if we have, instead of one flight a week or two flights a week from metropolitan areas….if we had five flights a day coming in to Tobago because there’s a Sandals, they’re heavily marketed as they do market, and with a plant that attracts people…if we had that other people who have rooms in Tobago because those airlines would have been coming into Tobago, airlift would not have been an issue,” Rowley said.
He said given Sandals global appeal “Tobago would have been a destination that it is not now”.
Rowley was very critical of Opposition Leader Kamla Persad Bissessar, who earlier this week, said that the Sandals issue had been shrouded in secrecy and that that Rowley, had while serving as opposition leader, had met with the Sandals group to negotiate the project.
Rowley told reporters that he had met with the SRI chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart and another senior official in the public domain during a public event prior to the last general election and had indicated a willingness for Sandals to consider doing business here, should the People’s National Movement (PNM) win the 2015 general election.
“The conversation I had with anybody from Sandals was in a public place …at a dinner of the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturing Association, where the featured speaker at that function and where I was an invited guest was Mr. Adam Stewart, a director of Sandals,” he said
Rowley also brushed aside comments by the Opposition leader that his administration had no plan with regard to Sandals and hence the inevitable withdrawal from Tobago was no surprise.
“Contrary to what the opposition leader has said, this was no whim of the prime minister. It was the solution to a long-standing problem and problems do not usually get any better on their own, they tend to get worse. This (Sandals) was a solution because this government’s objective is to identify the problem and fix them one by one,” Rowley said.
Rowley said the detractors of the Sandals project had successfully been able to get the population into accepting that the multi-million-dollar project, which would have been built by the government and managed by Sandals, would have occurred on sensitive environmental areas in Tobago.
“You took it up as if it was gospel and you propagated it to no end that the government is going to build this massive hotel on No Man’s Land. In fact the project was called “No Man’s Land”. Nothing was further from the truth,” he said, adding that the lies continued regardless of the statements put out by the government on the issue.
He reminded reporters that the Trinidad and Tobago government had been financially involved in hotel projects before, including the Hilton, Hyatt, and that the Sandals project would have been no different in partnership with the private sector.
He said while Tobago with all its tourism appeal, the destination “is not sufficiently well known to those who look to the Caribbean for their vacation.
“So while we had some rooms and we had a fair size hotel without a brand like Hilton you would struggle and without the airlift to bring people in if they want to come there you will struggle. So destination marketing has always been a problem for us in Tobago,” he said.