Interview with Orville London, chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly

Interview with Orville London, chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly

The position of Chief Secretary is held by the leader of the majority party in the Tobago House of Assembly, which is the local government body responsible for the island of Tobago. Orville London, who currently holds the role, sat down with The Report Company to explain the differences between Trinidad and Tobago and the work underway to boost the smaller island’s economy.

The Report Company: How does Tobago differ from Trinidad?

Orville London: There are certain similarities; some aspects of our history are similar and we have been a joint country for quite a number of decades but there are definitely some differences. There are a number of influences in Tobago: the French, the Dutch, the English and the Spanish. Unlike Trinidad, we didn’t have too much migration so there is an almost homogenous culture. Furthermore, we remain a more tourism-oriented rather than oil and gas-based economy, which has influenced our lifestyle and ambience. In addition, in Tobago’s 160 square miles there are only around 60,000 people so we’re not as urbanised and we have a much more close-knit kind of society.

Some this is in fact deliberate because as an island we made a decision to maintain our pristine nature. Tobago is what people visualise when they think of a Caribbean island. Because we came into tourism a little late we were able to learn from the experiences of the others and hopefully we won’t make the mistake of attempting to create an environment to cater for the tourists but then by creating that environment we make the island less attractive and less acceptable to the residents. We have a responsibility to give our residents the quality of life which they deserve and also to provide visitors with the kind of experience which they envisage. All of this has not only made Tobago different from Trinidad but also different from the other islands in the Caribbean.

TRC: What is the strategy that you implement to foster economic growth while preserving the environment?

OL: The process is ongoing and it is not without its challenges. Between 2005 and 2007 we had close to 80,000 visitors, and moving from a situation in 2001 of 17 percent occupancy we were averaging somewhere around 70 percent occupancy and still being able to maintain a community-oriented tourism. Now with the global downturn the situation has changed drastically and we now have tourism arrivals of just about 50 percent of what it was in those days. This has created some problems and placed significant responsibility on the Tobago House of Assembly to generate employment. This is one of the reasons why we have been attempting to do some diversification within the tourism sector and also diversification into other areas. This is where the Cove Eco-Industrial and Business Park comes in. We are also looking at modernising the traditional areas of fishing and agriculture. We do have our challenges with respect to generating the kind of economic activity that would take care of all the sectors in society.

We have a responsibility to give our residents the quality of life which they deserve and also to provide visitors with the kind of experience which they envisage.
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TRC: What incentives are there for investment into Tobago?

OL: On the national level there has been increased aggression with respect to incentives for foreign investors. In the case of Tobago we are also advocating that we should not only be put into the same category as similar enterprises in Trinidad but that in some cases we should even be allowed to have certain advantages because of the fact we’re still playing catch-up.

We have also identified in Tobago what we call designated development areas. In these areas we will be providing the kind of incentives and involving the kind of initiatives that would make them as attractive to the investor as any part of Trinidad and Tobago and hopefully any part of the region. One area where there had been some concern, which was more about the perception than the reality, was that in an effort to prevent speculation on the land we had triggered a clause in the foreign investment act which requested investors to have a license to purchase land. When the applications were made it took a long time, however within the next month even more effort will be placed on ensuring that any perceived or real challenge is erased and bona fide investors would find an environment that is very positive and welcoming.

We have close proximity to affordable energy, which does provide you with an opportunity to minimise the carbon footprint and of course that makes the island a little bit more attractive to the growing number of people who have an affinity to that kind of environment. I think there are opportunities there and we are examining the feasibility of renewable energy. Clean, green, safe, serene is our mantra and I think the green aspect of it is something on which we definitely going to be focussing.

TRC: What are you doing to reverse the decline in tourism arrivals to Tobago?

OL: We are operating in a highly competitive environment. The UK’s air passenger duty tax is a challenge and one of the most obvious ways of dealing with that is to try to ensure that the travellers’ net outlay does not increase because of this tax so we embarked on a campaign where persons coming out of the UK who commit to spending a certain amount of time in Tobago were given a refund of £100, which would compensate for the tax. It has been relatively successful. If we look at the trends we would note that there was a significant decline in arrivals between 2008 and 2011 but there are some encouraging signs for the upcoming season.

We have also tried to increase our spend with respect to marketing. Our marketing spend per capita when you compare it with other islands of the region is low. We need to ensure that we partner with the type of investors who share our vision of what Tobago should be. We will never have 400-room hotels. We’ll never have a focus on mass tourism. We will always continue to protect our rainforest. Development where we are concerned is an all-encompassing concept that speaks to the quality of life of the resident and the quality of the experience of the visitor and it means being able to sustain that over an extended period so we need to put in place the kind of processes that will give us as much assurance as you can get in a dynamic environment. We don’t want to appeal to a million people; a couple of hundred thousand people will be sufficient for us to make the transformation.

Tobago is what people visualise when they think of a Caribbean island.
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TRC: What projects is the Tobago House of Assembly working on and supporting?

OL: There are a number of areas. With respect to the designated development areas, two things happen there; the first is you’re able to identify the areas where you want development, making sure that the thing is managed without being controlled, so that it isn’t haphazard. The second is what we do to try to sensitise our people about their responsibility to themselves. I think we have earned a reputation of being one of the cleaner islands in the Caribbean and it is something we work at.

We actually have a litter eradication unit in strategic areas, so it’s almost like we do three or four levels of cleaning. We take that very seriously. There are some bigger projects which we are talking to the central government about. One of them has to do with what has to be done to preserve the reefs and the wastewater management issues. There are some medium and longer term projections where we have discussions on renewable energy; we’re going to be looking to see how feasible it is to have solar energy in some of our buildings, we are discussing with the ministries the possibility of using natural gas and we’re starting a process to use natural gas in more and more government vehicles. We’re hoping that Tobago could be at the forefront of a national policy to maximise the rainforest, which is one of the oldest protected rainforests in the western hemisphere. We want to maximise that potential. The focus is that within our limited resources, what can be done will be done.

TRC: What is your position on the autonomy of Tobago?

OL: What is happening in Tobago is no different from what happens in any relationship between a large entity and a smaller entity. The smaller entity will normally over a period of time attempt to get more and more control over its own affairs and there’s always a level of ambivalence because you don’t want to separate but you want more autonomy and control of your affairs. We are expecting to have the kind of arrangement which would give us the level of autonomy for which we have been striving for many decades. I want to reach an environment where the strength of the union is not undermined but the desire of the Tobagonian to achieve control of his own affairs is not frustrated.

TRC: What is your vision and outlook for the future?

OL: My goal, my vision and also my greatest challenge is preparing the Tobagonian to deal with opportunities and the challenges. The very same things that make Tobagonians different also create a challenge for us. We’ve been involved in various initiatives; we have programmes to assist entrepreneurs and educate young people.

If you look at my vision for Tobago, you might want to put it at different levels. Politically I have indicated – and this is not just a vision but a goal in this present term – that the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago will be defined to the satisfaction of Tobagonians once and for all. Economically I would want again to have a situation where Tobago can be considered to be self-sufficient with dignity, where we can be true to the basic concept of what Tobago should be. We would want to be able to have access to the energy resources and to utilise them in a way that would benefit Tobago. We want to be able to maximise the potential in the traditional areas such as agriculture and tourism. We want a tourism sector which is vibrant and responsive and flexible and varied. I would want Tobagonians to be sensitive to the need to preserve the environment and that various instruments are put in place to be able to facilitate that. We’re hoping to be able to start putting in place the kind of policies and initiatives that will deal with the preservation, utilisation and enhancement of the forested areas, the mitigation of natural disasters, and the whole question of marketing Tobago with credibility as a special destination. We also need to deal with being able to maintain the relationship with Trinidad, to assert our uniqueness and our independence and our integrity while maintaining the unity between the two islands. Looking at crime for example, we have always argued that the crime statistics for the country should be disaggregated. A visitor to Trinidad and Tobago should recognise that where security is concerned they are two totally different environments.


This article was published 30 January 2014
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