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The tourism sector played a rather minor role in the economy of Trinidad and Tobago compared with other Commonwealth Caribbean islands. In the mid-1980s, tourism represented only 3 percent of GDP, slightly above the 1960 level of 2 percent but below the 1970 level of 4 percent. Annual foreign exchange earnings derived from tourism averaged about US$200 million during the mid-1980s, making the sector the third largest earner behind oil and overseas investment. As the most southern and eastern of the Caribbean islands, Trinidad and Tobago did not enjoy the close proximity to the large North American tourist market of other Commonwealth Caribbean nations such as the Bahamas and Jamaica. Nonetheless, tourists were attracted to Trinidad and Tobago to enjoy its worldfamous carnival, steelband and calypso music, Hindu and Muslim festivals, and the unspoiled natural beauty of Tobago. Government policies have historically sought to limit and control tourist activity through prohibiting private beaches, casino gambling, and land sales to foreigners (although the latter was available through long-term leases). Substantial tourist growth was realized in the 1960s as a result of fiscal incentives offered under the Hotel Development Act of 1963. The advent of the oil boom in the 1970s diverted attention away from tourism as a source of foreign exchange revenues; as a result, by the mid-1980s no major hotel construction projects had occurred in nearly a decade. By the late 1980s, however, the government looked to tourism as a way to diversify away from a dependence on oil-based export revenues and as a stimulus to domestic agriculture and employment.
Trinidad and Tobago recorded 187,090 tourist arrivals in 1985, a number that was rather typical for the first half of the decade. In addition, over 6,000 cruise ship visitors were registered, which was well below the 28,000 level of 1981. Over half of all tourists were classified as private holiday tourists; this category consisted primarily of expatriate Trinidadians who stayed at private residences while visiting the country. Roughly 20 percent of all arrivals were for business purposes, and only about 10 percent were vacationing hotel tourists. North Americans comprised about 45 percent of tourist arrivals, of which the United States share was over 30 percent. Tourists from the Commonwealth Caribbean represented 35 percent of total arrivals, followed by West Europeans and South Americans. Trinidadians also frequented Tobago in large numbers as well, creating a rather large domestic tourist subsector. Some 45,000 Trinidadians traveled to neighboring Tobago during 1985. Hotel occupancy rates in the mid-1980s averaged 55 percent, below the industry's estimated break-even point of 60 percent.
The lack of physical infrastructure for the tourist industry was the main obstacle to further development of the sector. The country contained only about 2,000 hotel rooms and 300 guest rooms, or about one-fifth of the number of rooms in Jamaica. Tobago, much more dependent on tourism than Trinidad, possessed only 600 rooms and also suffered from water distribution problems. Although government plans called for 3,000 first-class hotel rooms to be operative by 1990, some observers doubted that this goal could be achieved. The lack of adequate airports also hindered tourism. Both of the country's major airports needed some upgrading and expansion to handle the growth of tourism envisioned by the government. The Piarco International Airport, located twenty-six kilometers east of Port-of-Spain, was the nation's principal facility. As of 1987, the government had not yet implemented longstanding plans for the complete expansion and renovation of Piarco. These plans included five-star hotels, longer and emergency runways, aircraft maintenance facilities, a bonded industrial park, and a cargo warehouse, all with the objective of making Piarco the air transportation hub of the Eastern Caribbean and northern South America. Crown Point Airport, located on Tobago, was the nation's other major airport. Although it received upgrading in the 1980s, these limited provisions were not expected to allow it to accommodate greatly increased international traffic. For example, in 1987 Tobago received only one direct flight a week from Miami.
Ports represented another tourist infrastructure problem. One of the reasons for the sharp decline in cruise ship arrivals in the early 1980s was the congested conditions at the Port-of-Spain docks. This problem was expected to be partially relieved in 1988 with the completion of the deepening of the inner harbor of Tobago's major port, Scarborough, allowing the smaller island to receive large cruise ships. Tobago's infrastructure for tourism was expected to expand in general after 1987 as a consequence of the 1986 election of a native Tobagonian as prime minister.
As with the rest of the economy, government involvement in the tourist industry was quite widespread. The most prominent example of government's role in tourism was its ownership of the British West Indian Airways (BWIA). BWIA, the oldest airline in the Caribbean, not only served Trinidad and Tobago but also was a principal carrier for other Eastern Caribbean islands. Despite its important role in the country's tourist industry, BWIA and the government's Tourist Board pursued only limited promotional activities overseas, especially in Western Europe; this was perceived to have hindered the performance of the sector. The government also owned or had an equity share in many of the islands' hotels. Since 1960 the government's Trinidad and Tobago Hotel and Catering School has trained workers for the tourist industry. In addition, the government operated the Hotel Management Company, offering various inn services to smaller lodging operations on a contract basis.
More about the Economy of Trinidad and Tobago.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress