Airport upgrade for Sandals project

The 750-room hotel by Sandals Resorts on the ultra-exclusive Buccoo Estate, No Man’s Land, in Tobago can only be a reality if there is a significant upgrade of the Arthur NR Robinson Airport, smoother, friendlier immigration process and litter-free environment.

These are what deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts International Adam Stewart described as the “tough-love part of the conversation” in hammering out the multi-million dollar deal which has the potential of reigniting the tourism industry on the island.

Speaking to local media in Barbados at the weekend, Stewart says the MOU signed between Sandals and the Government was a non-binding agreement that details the type of employment, the scale of the Tobago resort, the supply management chain and the commitment for Sandals to purchase items locally. He said there are “no secrets” in the business arrangement, rejecting claims made by Opposition MP Roodal Moonilal.

He said if the Sandals deal is to go forward, the Government must meet certain criteria and that includes upgrading the Tobago airport. Prime Minister Keith Rowley has in the past spoken about an upgrade of the Tobago airport but did not link it to the Sandals project.

“This is the tough-love part of the conversation where we’re saying the immigration needs to be trained in hospitality and the airport needs to be properly built for people to come through, when you are bringing hundreds of people.”

“If you go to the Turks & Caicos, which I just came from three days ago, people are waiting an hour and forty-five minutes after coming off a flight to clear Customs & Immigration. That is not acceptable.”

In addition to the airport upgrade, Sandals says the Government must ensure that when tourists visit the island and they go jogging on the streets, and if there was a fete the night before, there should not be, for instance, chicken bone on the ground.

On the issue of tax concessions, Stewart says it was premature to discuss that at this stage since it is yet to be decided on who will own and manage the resort in Tobago.

“If the Government says ‘We want to own half of it and we want Massy, Guardian, Republic Bank—all of the big boys to own the other half,’ then we can have a conversation about what type of concessions,” he said.

While he says that Sandals has never demanded anything from any Government, his message to the Rowley administration was: “If you want extra-ordinary results like US$85m a year of economic impact, yes typically, the Government has to be prepared to stabilise our tax package and to make sure if there’s a change in government, that they do not destroy our business model where in three years we are out of business and nobody wins.”

Admitting there have been issues between Sandals and Antigua government over tax concessions, Stewart says “People say we demand, it’s not people, it’s the Prime Minister of Antigua and we don’t agree with his actions. So the notion that we don’t pay taxes is preposterous and ludicrous. I am happy to send you the taxes we pay in Antigua.”

He said Sandals Resorts International will resume negotiations with the T&T Government within 60 days. If all goes as planned, Stewart says the resort will break ground in Tobago within the first quarter of 2019 and construction is expected take 22-28 months to be completed.

“This is one investment that will take Tobago back up to 100,000 visitors. It’s going to happen with blood, sweat and tears,” he said.

By Judy Kanhai

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