Gail Alexander’s article “Clico Battle for No Man’s Land” in the Sunday Guardian (24 July 2016) raised many questions about the proposed Sandals development in Tobago, including the legality of using the piece of Tobago real estate, No Man’s Land, as the site for the tourism project.
The report said Dr Keith Rowley struck a deal in 2015 with Sandals boss Gordon “Butch” Stewart while Dr. Rowley was still Opposition Leader. Mr. Stewart was quoted as saying that Dr. Rowley approached him about the possibility of establishing a Sandals development on the island.
If that is so, it might explain why Dr. Rowley has taken such a keen interest in this project and why he is fast tracking it. The PM has stated that a Sandals development in Tobago would add 750 rooms to the island’s hotel stock and its recognisable brand name would bring significant benefits for Tobago tourism.
But that’s three or more years down the road. Dr. Rowley is not addressing the present problem of empty rooms in Tobago, nor is he presenting a plan to attract tourists today.
With no information on which to assess this project other than the PM’s eagerness to get it done, we are yet to understand exactly how Sandals would provide the answers to the country’s tourism problems. What exactly would Sandals Tobago offer that is not available at Sandals resorts in Jamaica, Antigua or St. Lucia?
There are also other questions. Mr. Stewart claims that Dr. Rowley approached him with the idea in 2015. If that is so, what deal did Dr. Rowley make when he was not in a position to offer Mr. Stewart anything? What is the deal now that Dr. Rowley is PM and can offer concessions? Was the 2015 deal a private one involving Dr. Rowley and Mr. Stewart alone? Was the PNM involved? If the party was involved, what was the nature of its involvement? Citizens have a right to ask these questions and we demand answers before the government commits to Sandals.
Sandals advertisements and other promotional material don’t reveal the whole picture. An online search has uncovered some unflattering things about Sandals, including a public row between Sandals and the Government of Antigua and Barbuda. That country’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, is challenging Sandals to make good on a threatened lawsuit, saying he won’t allow his government to be “intimidated or bullied” by Sandals.
The quarrel is over a decision by Sandals to end an Antigua and Barbuda Sales Tax (ABST) concession on room rates, which was a part of a 2009 agreement between Sandals and the previous United Progressive Party (UPP) Administration. The agreement gave Sandals a 65 per cent ABST discount from July 2007 to the end of 2014, a 60 per cent discount between 2015 and 2022, and no discount after that. Browne has argued that the 2009 arrangement violated Antigua’s laws and deprived the country of more than US$15 million.
Then there is the issue of the Sandals service.
Comments about Sandals on the consumer affairs online site are not flattering. The site gave Sandals a two-star rating out of five based on 68 ratings and 110 reviews. One tourist wrote: “Never again! Our room was never cleaned unless we called, food was horrible.”
Sandals Antigua got this review: “…without a doubt this is the very worst experience we have ever had at any resort anywhere in the world…this place takes the award for WORST EVER.” There are dozens of similar negative comments, which should raise red flags about Sandals.
Against this background we ask whether Dr. Rowley did the necessary checks on this organisation before making a deal? Are we buying ‘cat in bag’ based on some agreement struck between two people, the details of which are not known? Dr. Rowley and the government must come clean on all of this.
There is another signficant problem that must be addressed. The Guardian reported on July 4 that Stewart would like his Sandals resort to be located in No Man’s Land and that he had not found another suitable location anywhere in Tobago. No Man’s Land is private property and the owners have said they have no interest in promoting a Sandals project. The valuable real estate is the property of two subsidiaries of the CL group and Lawrence Duprey told the Guardian he would use all legal measures to fight to keep it so.
“We’ll protect our constitutional rights,” the Guardian quoted Mr. Duprey as saying. “The way things are going, we must guard against undemocratic action, so we’re prepared for court—any court anywhere—to protect what we have to.”
Mr. Duprey has other plans for the area. He has said he is negotiating with a global investor for a resort there with a projected investment of US$3.5 billion and that the proposed resort would be “way above Sandals”.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert has acknowledged that Clico owns the property and he apparently believes there will be no problem if Sandals wants the land. “The land will simply be acquired by the Government,” he told the Guardian.
It is not that simple. While the State has the right to acquire lands anywhere for public use that right does not extend to private lands for a private developer. Or is Mr. Imbert suggesting that the State may have a stake in Sandals, which would give it to the right to acquire the land?
That leaves a real million dollar question.
If Mr. Duprey owns the land and he wants to bring in a resort “way above Sandals” with such a huge investment, would it not be a good idea to at least consider what he is planning? That is a logical approach but only if the government is seriously interested in what is best for Tobago and for tourism. Taking that step might interfere with plans Dr. Rowley might have already made a deal with Mr. Stewart from which he may not be able to back out.
If Mr. Duprey is ready to go to court with Sandals insisting on that the No Man’s Land site, the legal battles could delay the project way beyond the term of this Rowley administration.
And that means we are right where we are – no tourism plan, no additional revenues, no Sandals.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, MP
Leader of the Opposition