One day, in the not too distant future, tourists will come back to the Caribbean. But the nature of tourism and the tourists who visit is likely to be different to that which existed before Covid-19. Specialised, small scale tourism, especially that highlighting the beauty of the natural world, will be more in demand than ever. Trinidad & Tobago has more eco attractions than any other Caribbean island, by miles. It is truly blessed, and in a unique position to take advantage of this altered dynamic by protecting and improving what it has; utilising the domestic tourism market to aid and diversify the economy while preparing for the return of normality and international visitors. An industrial port in Toco may have been “shelved” for now, but the application for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance is still being sought. If the CEC is granted it will scupper any such chance of ecotourism success for this region, and much more besides.
TRINIDAD’S TOURISM APPEAL outside of Carnival is its natural beauty: tropical forests, birdlife, wilderness, wildlife, wetlands, and turtle nesting beaches – to experience similar riches you’d have to go to South America.
These tourists like to stay in small, eco-friendly hotels and simple guest houses near the unspoilt wilderness they have travelled so far to savour. As for the tourism stakeholders I spoke to along the North Coast, they supported small scale tourism drawing on the attraction of the unique natural vibe and eco attractions the area offers.
Mt Plaisir Estate in Grande Riviere was the first such eco hotel in the region, opening in 1993. It is largely responsible for starting the growth of ecotourism in that village where other small hotels and guest houses have since sprung up.
Mt Plaisir Estate’s location on the beach where leatherback turtles nest outside visitors’ rooms, which must be unique in the world, put turtle tourism on the map. The village receives approximately 20,000 visitors a year.
Piero Guerrini, who founded Mt Plaisir, is horrified by the proposed Toco port.
“Toco, they say, is beyond God’s back; totally unspoilt and beautiful, no crime, really nice people. I was originally thinking of setting up an eco tourism business in Toco before I settled in Grande Riviere,” he told me.
Guerrini says his hotel in Grande Riviere contributes about TT$1 million annually to the economy of the village through wages, the purchase of fish, local vegetables, and tours given to local guides.
“Of course, the other businesses all contribute to the economy of the village, too. But when the turtles are not here it is very, very quiet. Imagine if there were no turtles!”
The threat to the leatherback turtles’ breeding areas off Toco from the port is a peril to all the turtles in this corner of Trinidad and by extension to all the businesses that rely on the turtle tourism economy.
Guerrini has been consistent in his opposition to the port for these very reasons, both now and in 2000 when the UNC’s plan was rejected. He’s only too aware of the dangers it poses to the turtles and wider environment of this unique area of Trinidad, and visitors’ perceptions of a green, clean area.
An aghast Guerrini is adamant: “I am totally against the proposed mammoth eco-monster, disaster port. It will stop Toco being an eco destination.
“If that port goes ahead then I really think that would be the end and I would sell the hotel and go.
“This idea is blindness, total blindness!”
The unique setting of Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel on the leatherback turtle nesting beach of Grande Riviere
His neighbour across the road, Wendy James of Le Grand Almandier hotel, had another complaint – the lack of basic infrastructure.
“We need the road to Grande Riviere fixed. We barely have one. It’s being destroyed by lorries gong to Matelot to fix the erosion there. There has to be a plan to fix the road,” she insisted.
Pushed as to whether she would prefer to see billions spent on the port, or on local infrastructure such as roads, electricity, water, the training of young, local people to get into the tourism and hospitality business; protecting nature and the turtles, making the area an eco attraction, she said:
“Well, if you put it like that, yes, of course.”
She said the turtles were central to her business and needed protection. The numbers of leatherbacks nesting in Grande Riviere had decreased, as had tourism.
“What I see is that the government has no interest in developing tourism”, accused James.
Small, unspoilt hotels like Mt Plaisir Estate at Grande Riviere are what visitors to the north coast of Trinidad are looking for
On the road between Sans Souci and Toco is another small hotel, commanding lovely views of the ocean. But if the guests were to look to the east in the future a “multipurpose” port in Toco would be their outlook.
This 10-room property accommodates up to 32 people and was packed out with people escaping Carnival for the peace and quiet of the coast when I spoke with the owner.
The hotelier, who preferred not to be named, agreed with the concerns about the impact the port would have on this rural location.
“People come here to get away from the city, and commercialising the area would set us back to square one. What we have here, the peaceful ambience makes us unique,” said the hotelier.
“The air is clean and different, and the feeling of safety and security, of being able to walk out whenever you choose, would be compromised.
“Turtles are our selling point, as they are for all properties along this coast, even those not on the beaches. It will not be worth compromising that, or to accept pollution, or risking our lack of crime for that.”
Even nearer to the proposed port is the appealing hilltop hideaway of Hosanna Toco set in secluded grounds with panoramic views over the Caribbean Sea – and any future industrial port.
The entire reason for coming to Hosanna Toco – “Come, stay, unwind, relax, rejuvenate and leave the fast pace life behind” – amidst magnificent tropical scenery, would be mightily compromised by the port.
The owner is Michael Theodore, an original committee member of Stakeholders Against Destruction for Toco, SAD, formed after the rejection by the community of the UNC-backed Toco port in 2000.
Now he has another port to deal with. How does he feel about that?
“My concerns are with the lack of local participation and effective consultation in the process, as well as an articulated and integrated development plan linking the road and the port projects to the development of Toco.
“I have been to every consultation and reviewed all the plans submitted and this is the first I have heard of a hotel on the port. Based on its location and size this is an impossibility and if this were so, I would definitely object.”
Cozy Cottages in Cumana, Toco, described by guests as “a home away from home” is tucked away among mango, citrus and coconut trees.
The attractions of Toco are described as turtle watching, beach coming, sea bathing, fishing, surfing, bird watching and hiking. So I was not surprised when the owner told me: “No, I do not support the port”. He wants to see Toco develop as a tourist destination, and is coming up with his own ideas to make that happen.
Stephen Broadbridge has been running Caribbean Discovery Tours for 30 years, and it’s fair to say he is as enthusiastic about what Trinidad has to offer today as he was back then.
But his frustration and despair at the people running Trinidad’s tourism product comes over loud and clear down the phone line. He is scathing about the current Ministry of Tourism and Randall Mitchell, their boss.
Broadbridge is Vice President The Trinidad and Tobago Incoming Tour Operators Association. They’ve been trying to meet Mitchell for two years without success, the only tourism minister they’ve never met. “I don’t even know what he looks like,” says Broadbridge.
His view is the ministry is incapable of looking past Carnival and business conference tourism, totally ignoring the tremendous potential Trinidad has for eco tourism.
As for the port: “It is an absolutely awful project which will destroy the coast, create noise, disturb the turtles, cause pollution. A terrible, terrible idea for the environment.”
What about the ferry?
“I’m not going to get up in the dark to drive to Toco to catch a ferry on these dreadful roads, and nor are my customers. I want to spend as little time as possible on them.”
“It’s a crazy idea. My tourists stay in Port of Spain. If they want to go to Tobago they would go by ferry from there or catch a plane from Piarco,” said Broadbridge.”
Trinidad needed to be marketed as an ecotourism destination but, like Wendy James, he said this government simply wasn’t interested.
Waves for Hope is a non-profit organisation founded in 2019 by Trinidad surf professional Chris Dennis and his Swiss wife Manuela Giger. They also operate Surf Balandra, offering packages to surfers at home and abroad.
Waves for Hope offers a “surf therapy program to at-risk youths” in the rural communities of Trinidad. Surfing at Toco is one of the major activities they use to foster an interest in a fun activity and keep young people off the streets away from the temptations of a criminal lifestyle.
Toco also happens to be the best place to surf in all Trinidad.
Pro surfer Chris Dennis teaching surfing to children. He also runs a surf therapy program to “at-risk youths”. The best waves they surf in all Trinidad are in Toco‘s Grande L’Anse Bay which the port will destroy
Dennis tells me it’s a “world class wave break, the best in Trinidad, what we in the surf community call a ‘right hand point break’. During the surf season, January to March, there will always be surfers there as long as it’s breaking.
But it won’t be breaking when the port is built. “That break will be destroyed by the port,” warns Dennis..
“The waves in Grande L’Anse Bay are of a particular quality and are used for training professionals and would-be pros for the national team,” he said. “Both spots (Salybia/Salibay being the other,) are real special places.
“At Surf Balandra, we’ve just had people from Scotland staying for a month surfing the area, enjoying local culture, and we get people from other countries too.
“Grande L’Anse Bay is a natural resource that isn’t valued,” says Dennis, who has been spearfishing as well as surfing for 30 years, explaining, “there isn’t an inch of rock, or, hole or corner of the north coast between Maracas and Toco that I don’t know”.
The port developers say Grande L’Anse Bay has no critical habitat, I tell him.
“What? You’re kidding, aren’t you? That area all the way around the corner to Salybia (Salibay) is lobster territory, where people earn a living.”
Jean Paul Rostant of the Surfing Association of T&T told me that the surfing community of T&T is estimated at well over 2500 persons.
I asked him about the importance of the area the port will occupy.
“The spot in question is affectionately known as ‘Toco Depot. It’s one of the highest quality waves you’ll find in Trinidad.
“The wave is especially good during the winter months of October to April,” he explained.
“Many surf spots tend to explode during this season due to the ocean contours in these areas, namely the reef that is proposed to be destroyed . . . the result is perfectly formed waves.
“Just east of Toco Depot is another spot called the ‘Cutting Board’,” said Rostant. “This name is a result of the sharp, healthy reef that lies in shallow water which has left its mark on many a surfer throughout generations.
“These spots are visited by many Trinidadian surfers who are unable to leave Trinidad to visit Tobago.”
Rostant, who attended the December consultation, said “any benefits derived from this port in its current design are outweighed by the negative impacts, and the Government should pause and reconsider its plan in its entirety”.
The most important resource for any resident of Toco is its coastline. It’s what defines the village of Toco. That will be lost. The worst part of the Toco port project, which the Trinidad government, NIDCO and their foreign consultants fail to address on every count, is simple – loss: the loss of beaches which local people and tourists have enjoyed for generations; loss of Trinidad’s best surf; loss of scenic values; loss of simple recreational pleasures; loss of coral reefs; loss of sea products; loss of the leatherback and other sea turtles; loss of tourism; loss of livelihoods; loss of peace, and loss of a unique natural ambience. Loss for very many, profit for a very few.