Hmm, tourist arrivals in Trinidad and Tobago are falling steadily, but what the hell could be causing that? This somehow has the ring of a doctor struggling to diagnose chicken pox. Why on earth wouldn’t tourists want to come here? It’s not like destination shoppers have a world of choice at their fingertips, right? Wrong. With a simple keystroke, a traveller can book the vacation of their dreams or the adventure of a lifetime.
People are spending their hard-earned dollars on memorable experiences. In Kenya, you can stay in a hotel where giraffes stick their heads into your bedroom window. Why not book a room in the middle of the Andean cloud forest in Ecuador? For folks who like living on the edge, you can vacation in a hotel in Chile which overlooks an active volcano. Now, before anyone gets to thinking our tourism product can’t stand up to the rest of the world, that’s just not true. We actually have a lot going for us: exotic wildlife, breathtaking natural landscapes, a host of religious and cultural festivals, historical sites, and beautiful beaches. T&T also has a warm and friendly people who will go out of their way to wear down the feet of any visitor to make sure they have the best time.
The winners in the gladiatorial destination arena, though, are the countries who nurture their tourism product and move heaven and earth to show exactly what makes them so special. In both areas, product development and marketing, we are failing abysmally. We need look no further than what we love to boast of as our premier eco-tourism site: the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. This is the home of the scarlet ibis, our national bird. It is also a great place to see other incredible creatures such as the silky anteater, snakes, ospreys, red-capped cardinals; the list goes on.
However, a closer look at the Caroni Bird Sanctuary uncovers a deep rot, one which is symptomatic of our lackadaisical approach towards everything; that goes for tourism as well. Buckle up, folks. We have an eye-opening tour for you.
Now, some of you may already seen what we’re about to share. As citizens, however, we’ve become so numb to the general state of collapse and neglect across the country that it’s difficult to see ourselves the way foreigners do. So, shall we?
A tangle of bush that fails to hide an abandoned construction is the first image greeting visitors to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, our most treasured eco-tourism destination. Not even the sting of personal embarrassment could prompt the authorities (the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, regional corporation, friendly neighbourhood wacker-man) to at least trim the unruly weeds. But being embarrass-proof is one of our superpowers here.
Here are the remnants of another crumbled ambition. This eyesore has been here for several years, but it hasn’t bothered anyone enough to do something about it. We’ve left these buildings in this condition to elicit a shock factor among our foreign visitors.
One can only assume that the swamp, in an act of rebellion, reclaimed some of its territory by flooding this abandoned site. Engineers, hopelessly stumped, conceded the construction to the forces of nature. We can’t say for sure. That’s why it’s part of the tour! Who can guess what became of this project, folks? There’s no wrong answer because there is no answer at all.
While you’re waiting for the remaining tour groups to arrive, why not have a look around? This rotting hull was once a fishing boat called a pirogue. It was left here because there are no penalties for abandoning derelict vessels anywhere you damn well please. Let’s keep moving along. There’s so much more to be disgusted by.
Welcome to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary Visitor’s Centre. We know it’s not exactly befitting the splendour of this natural wonder, a unique attraction in the Caribbean, but we really love that rustic, decrepit look.
Yes, this is the age of technology with interactive displays in museums, libraries and other places of learning. We like to keep it as simple and basic as possible. Hence, our pictures stapled to water-stained cork boards and vaguely labelled oyster and fish.
Okay, now that you’ve enjoyed the engaging, educational content at our visitor’s centre, how about a nice stroll on the grounds? How often do you get the opportunity to walk around in the middle of a mangrove swamp? Come, let’s see what we can spot with our binoculars.
Okay, we know this is not what you would see at other nature reserves. But we’re sure this is one image you’ll remember for quite some time!
There are some places you visit where there are prominently displayed signs asking you not lean on the railings. Here at our visitor’s centre, where such signs would definitely be useful, there aren’t many railings left! Wood rot has been allowed to advance without the pesky disruption of things like site inspections and routine maintenance. So don’t worry about the railings. Pull up a brick or something. You’ll probably find a few around here somewhere.
Our wood railings are a superb demonstration of the withering effects of the damp and humidity in the mangrove environment. Yes that sounds like it makes sense so we’ll go with that.
In T&T, we have a grand tradition of leaving small, fixable problems to develop into costly bloated projects. So, our Visitor’s Centre is right on track to completely disintegrate before anyone raises an eyebrow!
Now, here’s another interesting tidbit for you. The Caroni Swamp only comes alive for about two hours in an entire day. Visitors to the swamp generally gather at around 4:00 pm for a tour that culminates in the breathtaking return of the scarlet ibis to their roosts for the evening. That tour, however, scarcely exceeds an hour. All the other wildlife that can be seen at different times during the day is ignored.
Well folks, we hope you’ve enjoyed the tour. Now let’s get you out of here before the mang mosquitoes pick up the evening shift. What’s that? Thirsty? Yes, well we can probably rustle up a bottled water for you or something.
That, in a nutshell, is the experience at the Visitor’s Centre of the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, our premier eco-tourism attraction in T&T. If that doesn’t trigger pangs of shame, then who knows what will.
Built and staffed at a cost to the taxpayer, the Visitor’s Centre is definitely not living up to its potential. As an asset to support our national tourism product, it is virtually useless. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Strategically placed bird feeders can bring hummingbirds and other mangrove species closer to the centre. This would give visitors a reason to be there and provide a great start to their trip into the swamp as sundown approaches. Local foods and drinks can be served, earning additional revenue for the upkeep of the facility. What about a gift shop plying visitors with unique items like local wildlife publications, DVDs, photographs, you name it. There should be also be a boardwalk through the nearby mangroves. Every inch of this facility should reflect an outdoor adventure, because that’s what being in nature is all about.
Visitors would feel as though they’ve gotten a more well-rounded T&T experience and the centre would be put to good use. Give them a memorable experience and they may be inclined to part with more of their US dollars. Instead, what we have at the moment is foreigners, with cameras slung around their necks, hanging around only for a few minutes. They leave shortly after discovering that there is nothing to see or do at the Visitor’s Centre.
Despite the deplorable state of the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, tour guides bringing guests to the swamp do their best to make every trip a selfie-worthy experience. Trouble is, though, they can’t be expected to carry the nation’s tourism product on their backs alone.
In this age of customer review-driven global tourism, Trinidad and Tobago has a how-it-hang-is-so-it-swing attitude towards the foreign visitors we desperately need. Our oil prowess has flared off, but the arrogance, incompetence and corruption it fuelled still haunts us. While countries around the world are pulling out all the stops to compete for tourist dollars, we are still behaving as though they need us more than we need them.