Tobago’s Blue Food Festival was named one of the 14 best food events in the world by CNN

But Tobago has been experiencing a significant decline in foreign visitors.

As its big sister, Trinidad, settles into its post-Carnival slumber, Tobago rustles its wings, preparing to stretch its arms wide open to welcome visitors to its shores. April is the month the island fully blossoms as it unfurls its calendar of festivals starting with the Tobago Jazz Experience (TJE) and ends later in the year with the Blue Food Festival.

Over the last decade, Tobago has been sealing its reputation as the Isle of Festivals with the big three: Jazz, the Tobago Heritage Festival, and the Blue Food Festival. In between are smaller yet popular events such as the goat and crab racing festivals, Tobago Fest, the Muhtadi International Drumming Festival and others.

The Jazz Festival started in 2005 by CL Financial and it was eventually taken over by the Tobago House of Assembly, which recognized the potential in the event which dared to stand among the region’s leading Jazz Festival.

Today, the Barbados Jazz Festival is no more and the St Lucia Jazz Festival has been rebranded and repackaged as part of that island’s months-long Soleil Festival. The TJE has endured, tapping into the lucrative Trinidad market once sought by regional tourist boards for their own event.

Domestic tourism

Tobago Heritage Festival 2016. Photo by: Alva Viarruel.

A boon for domestic tourism, the TJE has seen flights and hotels being booked months in advance.

Even in 2017, which saw fewer patrons due to dissatisfaction with the line-up (Grace Jones, D’Angelo, and Shabba Ranks), the event still attracted sold-out flights.

In a release, Caribbean Airlines (CAL) said it successfully operated 252 domestic flights from April 13- 17, providing over 18,000 seats and accommodating 3,900 standby passengers.

The airline said that during the Tobago Jazz Experience from April 24- 30, 301 domestic services were operated, 21,844 seats were provided and 5,681 standby passengers carried.

Apart from its inherent attractions—the headline artistes—the TJE has provided a platform for other fringe events now considered part of the overall affair.

Fashion Coda started five years ago by businessman Don Grant, is one such event, providing an opportunity for designers to sell their clothing and market themselves ahead of the festival.

Leve, an event started by hotelier and businesswoman Dr. Auliana Poon, is another. Leve is an exclusive, invitation-only event that brings T&T’s creative talent in fashion, food, music, and art, together with those with deep enough pockets to purchase, invest and spread the word about the talent they encounter.

The Beach Jazz Concert, formerly held at Mt Irvine Beach Resort but moved this year to the Rex Turtle Beach, is a huge attraction for those looking for pure jazz performances and more local names on the cast.

In 2017, the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival also became part of the TJE, screening a number of local movies ahead of the event at its Tobago Jazz Film Festival.

TJE organizer, John Arnold, cited these spinoff events as a mark of success.

“In terms of the buy-in from the stakeholders, in terms of the variety of events and also the culture of the events, I think it was a major success. From where I sit I would say, yes, it was a success for several reasons. The buy-in we got from many more fringe festivals, from many more stakeholders,” he said.

Tobago Heritage Festival 2016. Photo by: Caswell Gordon.

Heritage Festival

Starting on Easter weekend, a prime time for domestic tourism on the island, and culminating a week later, the TJE is just one of the events that has put the island atop the country’s event calendar. The Heritage Festival in August is another.

This is where Tobagonians get to put their full history and culture on display and involves participation from the communities.

Running from July to August, the Heritage Festival, started in 1987, puts each village on show as they demonstrate some of the island’s folk traditions such as “Moriah Ole Time Wedding”, “Charlottesville National Treasures Day” and “Plymouth J’Ouvert”.

In addition to these and other festival favorites, 2017 will see the “Junior Heritage” and “Bele Fest” added to the calendar of events, as well as the return of the unique “Living Museum” in Scarborough.

Though an attraction by virtue of its existence and its focus on history and tradition, the Heritage Festival is mainly seen as an event to educate young Tobagonians about their history and traditions.

Former Chief Secretary Orville London said in 2016 that it is about instilling pride in their history and heritage to inspire the present and future.

The Blue Food Festival in Bloody Bay also aims to teach Tobagonians their history through cuisine. But the event, now in its 18th year, is also used to attract tourists, domestic and foreign. In keeping with a 2017 United Nations World Tourism Organisation survey found that gastronomy ranked third among the main reasons for tourists to visit a destination, after cultural motive and nature.

Named one of the 14 best food events in the world by CNN, the Blue Food Festival focuses on dasheen—which, when cooked,  turns a pale shade of blue, hence the name. Chefs gather to show their innovations to this popular root, conjuring up a variety of dishes to the delight of the visiting foodies. Rum stalls and parties add to that delight.

Tobago Heritage Festival 2016. Photo courtesy: Tobago House of Assembly.

Tourism in decline

The popularity of Tobago’s festivals, however, has not been enough to save the island’s tourism product lately.

In a media conference in June 2017, the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association revealed that Tobago has been experiencing a significant decline in foreign visitors from 87,796 in 2005 to 19,000 in 2016.

Dependence on visitors from Trinidad has been affected in 2017 by problems with the inter-island ferries which have resulted in daily cancellations and rescheduled sailings.

The Government assured the problems will be fixed by putting the existing ferries on dry dock to be fixed while new ferries would be leased to work the route temporarily. The Government also intends to build ferries to work the route in the long term.

Crime has also been cited as a deterrent, with hoteliers stating it has affected business on the island. Tobago, as of, June, counted about five murders for the year.

Recognising the need to fix Tobago’s tourism sector, the Government early in 2017 announced the dissolution of the Tourism Development Company to create two entities to focus on Trinidad and Tobago separately.

The Tobago Tourism Agency is expected to be operational in 2018 and will focus on marketing Destination Tobago, product development, and research.

The Government is also wooing regional luxury hotel chain Sandals to build two hotels on the island. Sandals, which is a couples’ only hotel, and Breezes, which caters to families.

It is believed a hotel brand of Sandals’ caliber will not only lift the profile of the island but attract tourists with its marketing strategies in key markets.