A surfer is wiped out on Mt Irvine’s famous wave in Tobago. There are concerns the massive Marriott development will wipe out the reefs which form the wave
PHOTO BY PIOTR ANDREWS
Touted as providing the impetus Tobago needs to kick-start its floundering tourism sector, the proposed Marriott resort at Mt Irvine is threatening a wipeout of coral reefs and turtle nesting sites This is a longer version of the feature which appeared in Trinidad’s Sunday Express on August 28th (see bottom of page). By MARK MEREDITH
CRITICS OF THE MARRIOTT RESORT development plan for Rocky Point, which sits directly above Mt Irvine’s world-famous point break surfing location, fragile coral reefs and turtle nesting beach, say it threatens a wipeout of the very attractions which have drawn tourists to Mt Irvine for decades.
The Rocky Point Foundation (RPF), an NGO set up to fight the development and come up with an alternative and sustainable tourism plan for the rugged peninsula, believe that while a Marriott-branded hotel should be welcomed by Tobago, the location chosen at Rocky Point is the wrong one and could prove a death knell to Mt Irvine, its wave, its reefs, its turtles and its vibe.
But Prime Minister Keith Rowley has said the $500 million Marriott resort will be built, “come hell or high water”, while certain Tobago politicians have promised it will not become another Sandals, referring to the pull-out of the Jamaican resort group from Buccoo in 2018.
RPF and environmental NGOs SOS Tobago and Speseas believe the location chosen is unsuitable for the development comprising a 216 room hotel (which includes hotel bungalows) with dozens of villas, cabins, cabanas, townhouses and duplexes scattered over an archaeologically important site surrounded by coral reefs and a turtle nesting beach.
The huge 28 acre development would sit on the site of Fort Monk, a Courlander fort built in 1680, making it potentially the oldest structure in the whole of T&T, and an area with an important Amerindian history where artefacts turn up routinely.
Environmentally, and critical to Mt Irvine’s success as a tourist destination, opponents are concerned the massive scale of the development’s construction and operation would threaten the integrity and health of the coral reefs and well-known dive sites used by diving operators, including the Mt Irvine Wall.
The demise of any reefs would, in turn, threaten the unique circumstances which lead to the formation of the famous surfing wave which draws riders from around the world, they say.
Previous attempts to build a large scale resort, port and casino at Rocky Point in the 1980s were thrown out because of these environmental concerns.
From the July 2022 developers’ (Superior Hotels) Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) application and master plan it appears no consideration has been given to crucial ecological aspects of the development site.
They plan to remove 45 per cent of the vegetation. To denude the area of so much vegetative cover poses serious risks of erosion and runoff pollution to the reefs below, say marine biologists contacted by the Sunday Express.
SOS Tobago told the Sunday Express: “Suspended sedimentation in the water snuffs out sunlight and further smothers corals when it settles. This makes it hard for the microscopic algae in the coral to photosynthesise leading to reduced productivity and growth and even coral death.”
SOS Tobago and Speseas told us, “the proposed scale and scope (of the development) is incompatible with the nearby fragile habitats”.
Asked about potential impacts of the project, another marine scientist, who preferred not to be named, told the us: “Replacement of coastal habitats and watersheds with hard surfaces means greater runoff, higher pollution and sediment influx, not to mention the alteration of the habitat itself, all resulting in poor water quality, a rise in coral diseases, smothering of reefs and mass die off.”
Sitting above the beach of Back Bay – one of the island’s most dangerous beaches and scene of numerous drownings – the Marriott resort threatens turtle nesting sites of critically endangered leatherback and hawksbill turtles which use the dark, sloping, wave-lashed sandy beach to lay eggs, say SOS Tobago.
The NGO, which has monitored Back Bay for 20 years, told us: “It is a dynamic, high energy beach and one of the last truly ‘green’ untouched beaches in the south west. It’s ideally suited for turtles’ unique nesting needs.”
With Sandals it could be argued that there was a usable beach to draw international tourists to Buccoo and No Man’s Land. But for any Marriott tourist to swim at “deadly” Back Bay is to take their lives in their hands, say those who know the area.
In reality, the fanciful sun loungers scattered on the sand in the developer’s graphic threaten to be swept away by rogue waves at any moment.
The Marriott-branded resort, which will be built by Trinidadian John Aboud’s Superior Hotels, is being sold to the Tobago public as the new answer to Tobago’s tourism woes.
But the grim reality is that the tourism environment in Tobago in 2022 is even worse than it was in 2018 before Covid when Sandals pulled out.
The Sunday Express was told by one tourism expert that every hotel on the island today faces either receivership or is simply covering costs, with no profits.
Hotel occupancy figures for 2022, seen by the Sunday Express, show interest in Tobago at historically dire levels, with just 35 per cent hotel occupancy in May. Figures only creep up to 45 per cent around Carnival.
We were told by one past senior official that data from a Tobago Tourism Authority survey showed that Tobago has been averaging half the Caribbean region’s occupancy and rate for many years.
We asked the THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine and the development consortium why they believe a ubiquitous Marriott hotel and real estate development sprawl situated above a beach too dangerous to swim on would miraculously turn everything around.
Why did they believe a brand-driven resort like Marriott would succeed when the experience of having a Hilton-branded hotel and championship golf course at Lowlands failed so dismally?
With the THA putting up loss making Magdalena Grand (the old Tobago Hilton) up for sale – had the THA discussed with the developers that they buy and take over that resort?
Did they look at the developers taking over the defunct and once beautiful Arnos Vale hotel site, or Manta Lodge or Sanctuary Villas, currently bleeding THA coffers?
The Sunday Express asked Augustine whether the THA was putting the cart before the horse, and where was the logic of building more hotel room stock when demand for the existing ones remains so depressed, when empty sites already existed in better locations?
We asked: shouldn’t their first concern be attracting tourists to Tobago? By using and paying attention to the branding of their own Tobago Tourism Agency: “Where unspoilt traditions, untouched natural beauty and undiscovered gems merge to create the idyllic Caribbean escape.”
How, we asked, did that concept and message square with building a potentially destructive concrete carbuncle perched high on the handsome bluff of Rocky Point, decimating the otherwise glorious coastal vistas for miles in every direction, threatening the environment and archeological treasures?
Did he think that matched their own tourism slogan: “Beyond Ordinary”?
So why would they risk that?
While Rowley’s PNM government was prepared to spend billions financing Sandals huge resort with taxpayers’ money, at no risk to Sandals, this time its state agency, Eteck, has granted a 99 year lease of state lands, tax free for seven years, to a group of Trinidadian businessmen. Opponents fear the development will lock Tobago people out of an area they’ve enjoyed for decades.
Requests by opponents to the resort for information on that lease and what was paid for it under the Freedom of Information Act to the PM’s office, THA and Eteck have not been responded to.
The developers requested a claim for confidentiality of their CEC application. This was rejected by the EMA.
The EMA requested further information from Superior Hotels which they have now supplied. This document, available at the EMA, makes clear the enormous environmental challenges facing the developers to prevent pollution and degradation of the coral reefs and disturbance to nesting turtles.
Animated graphics, drawings, as well as the Master Plan in the Application for a CEC to the EMA by the developers, show that the Marriott hotel takes up less than a third of the 28 acre site.
The rest of the project is devoted to development of real estate: villas, duplexes, townhouses, “weekend cabins” and “cabana zones”. “Private residences” are clearly marked on the original plan.
The Sunday Express has been told the villas, townhouses and duplexes etc will be sold privately. Buyers can choose to live in them or rent them out, a Tobago Plantations type model.
We emailed two members of the development consortium, John Aboud and John Scott, to confirm which properties were for private real estate, as their plans are ambiguous. Were any of them part of the hotel?
Because with two thirds or more of the development site given over to building private real estate, how could that be construed to be helping Tobago tourism?
And we asked who is going to buy the real estate in this depressed tourism destination? Who and where is the target market? Foreign investors today cannot effectively get a license to own land on the island, a tourism insider told us.
The Sunday Express has learned that Superior Hotels and their architects had never paid a site visit to Rocky Point before April this year, designing the enormous project effectively blind.
Their architects had no idea of the existence of the famous wave now threatened, according to critics, or of the crucial historical sites they had flattened with a massive hotel design structure and real estate extravaganza.
We asked Superior Hotels: what message do you believe that conveys to Tobagonians about the care your consortium is taking with developing this precious area of Tobago?
Repeated requests for comment from the THA Chief Secretary were not forthcoming. Superior Hotels said they declined to comment.