PM slams critics of hotel plans – EMA law used to obstruct

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley at a post-Cabinet media briefing at the White Hall in Port of Spain on Thursday. – AYANNA KINSALE

THE Prime Minister says Government may need to revisit the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) act as people in this country use it to obstruct development, rather than help it. The misuse of the act, he said, has robbed TT of projects including Sandals Resorts and an aluminium smelter plant.

Dr Rowley made the comment at a post-Cabinet press conference at Whitehall on Thursday afternoon.

Reiterating his stance that Tobago needs to become a “major tourist destination,” he said his government is in full support of the proposed construction of a $500 million Marriott-brand hotel and property development at Rocky Point. He said the island needed a “significant increase in the number of high-quality hotel rooms” there.

“This is not a political statement. I’m speaking as a Tobagonian.”

He added that modern planes are much larger and faster than in the past. It is because of that, he is also anticipating the new ANR Robinson Airport, set to be complete by early 2025. He said many other Caricom countries mainly relied on tourism and had the same or less resources.

He said even though some Tobagonians were opposed to the new airport, “The Central Government is of the view that it is part of the development of TT, and notwithstanding the objections of local politicians, we are going to build it.”

However, going back to Tobago’s need for more hotel rooms, he said the question remained: “Who is going to build (them)?…

“The Government built the Hilton, the Government built the Hyatt, the Government built the Magdalena…Even if we want to build another hotel now, we don’t have the money.” It is because of this, the Government looked to the private sector. He recalled his disappointment that seeking to do same with 2018 Sandals Resort in Tobago never materialised, owing to what he described as misinformation in the public domain, the company pulled out of the deal in 2019.

He said the Sandals brand were “friends of TT” and were invited to Tobago and asked if there was an ideal space to built on.

The Buccoo Estate was chosen.

Rowley said public misinformation spread that No Man’s Land was chosen, and no matter how much the Government tried to clarify this, people believed it.

He said a “handful of faceless, nameless people” spent weeks “attacking the environmental side of things.

“Everybody in this country knows we use the EMA not to help us in our development but to obstruct our development.

“We lost the aluminium smelter through the use of the EMA. We lost Sandals through the use of that….

“Even before we got to a point of negotiating anything with the Sandals people, we had people objecting to terms that had not even been established then.”

He said the brand was already established in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada, so it would not have been difficult to organise terms. There are seven branches in Jamaica, three in St Lucia, two in Barbados and the Bahamas, one in Antigua, St Vincent, Grenada and Curacao,

“Because we in Caricom talk about harmonisation of fiscal incentives. We subject to that. We were not going to be giving Sandals anything different.

“But you start to accuse the people of corruption and dishonesty and all manner of evil, and they say, ‘We don’t need that!’ and they left and they went to St Vincent.”

He said last week when Vincentian prime minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves visited TT, he boasted there is now a Sandals resort in his country – “the one that was supposed to be in Tobago.” Gonsalves was here for the launch of late former prime minister Patrick Manning’s biography. Gonsalves added that the resort employed 1,000 people.

“But it was not good enough for Tobago or too good for Tobago,” Rowley said.

He said some politicians and “well-financed idlers” chased Sandals out of Tobago.

He said the same fate would not meet the proposed hotel at Rocky Point.

“(People) who spend their day (telling) you that because their parents were good enough to send them to the best school, and they don’t have to worry about the next meal because their trust fund is good and they spend their time surfing, and if the hotel is built at Rocky Point, it will affect the waves in the sea so they wouldn’t enjoy the surfing, and they go and smoke their marijuana there and meditate to (their) god…I, as Prime Minister of TT, will move heaven and earth to make sure that the hotel is built.

“There are Tobagonians who have no trust fund and who are waiting for a meal, there are farmers waiting for a market…

He said he had invited people who were involved in “major hotel business” from both Ghana and India to visit Tobago to see if they had any interest in bringing projects there.

“Tobago needs more rooms. Tobago needs more airlift. Tobago needs a better airport. Tobago needs a better economy. What Tobago does not need is more morning work where you see young people get up and work for half an hour, cut some grass and paint some stones, and people telling them, ‘We like to go and surf.’”

Rowley said he studied oceanography and geology and still could not figure out how a hotel built eight feet above sea level and on land could affect how waves broke far out in the sea.

“I am not prepared to let people play politics again and lose another opportunity.”

Rowley then revisited 2007 under the leadership of Manning, when approval was given for building an aluminium smelter plant in La Brea. The project later fell through.

Chinese company Alutrint and the China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corp had a US$540 million agreement to construct it.

Rowley said, “I’m a geochemist by training and I saw people who don’t even know the first word in the periodic table giving all kind of statements how aluminium going to kill us.

“It not killing anybody in Canada, it not killing anybody in Bahrain, it not killing anybody in Australia but it go kill we in TT.”

He said the then Opposition jumped on that train for political points, and when they won the following election, they did not follow certain court instructions, which led to the project’s demise.

Because of this, he said the government had incurred liabilities from the Chinese company in the amount of $US300 million.

Diplomatic talks are currently “holding it together,” he said, but it will soon reach a point where the Government cannot hold it any more. He said if anyone looked at the aluminium market, they would see where TT could have been.

He said the same people who spoke about the need to diversify the economy did not support efforts made to do same.

“This country needs to have a government that does what’s good for the country without fear or favour, malice or ill will.”

Asked if, in light of the examples he gave, the EMA act should be revisited, Rowley said it was a good question and, “Maybe we should.”

Newsday tried to contact EMA CEO Hayden Romano and EMA chairman Nadra Nathai-Gyan, but calls and messages went unanswered.