Stakeholders- Virgin Atlantics Tobago exit no surprise

It’s no sur­prise British air­line Vir­gin At­lantic is no longer vi­able for To­ba­go.

This from the is­land’s stake­hold­ers who agreed it was sim­ply not prof­itable for the car­ri­er to re­main in op­er­a­tion at this time.

In fact, Chris James, pres­i­dent of the To­ba­go Ho­tel and Tourism As­so­ci­a­tion (TH­TA), told the Busi­ness Guardian the de­ci­sion should have been made be­fore.

“It’s a shame Vir­gin has come off the route but it re­al­ly wasn’t a good re­turn on in­vest­ment. In fact, it prob­a­bly should have been stopped a num­ber of years ago. It is a very strong shame for me be­cause I was on the air­lift com­mit­tee in get­ting Vir­gin to come here.

“The num­bers com­ing off the plane was so small for the amount of mon­ey we were spend­ing. It re­al­ly could not con­tin­ue,” James said.

On spe­cif­ic num­bers James on­ly re­it­er­at­ed that they “were very low.”

On De­cem­ber 31, 2022, Vir­gin At­lantic will cease to op­er­ate its di­rect week­ly flight to the ANR Robin­son In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port which de­parts from Lon­don Heathrow in the UK

Ear­li­er this week the To­ba­go Tourism Agency Ltd (TTAL) an­nounced it will be dis­con­tin­u­ing its air­line con­tract with Vir­gin At­lantic be­tween To­ba­go and the UK.

This is the re­sult of a strate­gic re­view and re­align­ment of the agency’s in­vest­ment in air­lift for the des­ti­na­tion, the TTAL said.

TTAL’s ex­ec­u­tive chair­man Ali­cia Ed­wards who de­scribed the de­ci­sion as “dif­fi­cult” ex­plained to dis­con­tin­ue the air­lift con­tract was nec­es­sary in the cur­rent op­er­at­ing cli­mate, as Vir­gin’s flight had not per­formed as well as oth­er car­ri­ers for the re­gion, and is no longer a fi­nan­cial­ly vi­able op­tion for To­ba­go.

“The re­turn on in­vest­ment for the Vir­gin At­lantic air­lift sub­sidy fund­ed by the pub­lic sec­tor has been de­te­ri­o­rat­ing steadi­ly over the years, to the point where the re­new­al of their con­tract could not be log­i­cal­ly de­fend­ed and ex­e­cut­ed.

“In re­assess­ing our des­ti­na­tion’s tourism prod­uct, state of the in­dus­try post-pan­dem­ic and oth­er tan­gi­ble con­sid­er­a­tions, des­ti­na­tion To­ba­go is not the best fit for a part­ner­ship with Vir­gin at this time.

“The agency, and by ex­ten­sion the des­ti­na­tion, is grate­ful to the Vir­gin team for their tenure of the part­ner­ship, and we are con­fi­dent that we will be able to re­vis­it a re­la­tion­ship with them in the fu­ture,” Ed­wards said.

So what led to this sit­u­a­tion in the first place?

James said it’s not the case of tourists not com­ing to To­ba­go be­cause British Air­ways con­tin­ue to do quite well.

“When you com­pare the loads com­ing off British Air­ways to Vir­gin, it’s chalk and cheese,” James added.

Pressed as to the specifics, he said the “sit­u­a­tion was com­pli­cat­ed.”

“They (Vir­gin) have a dif­fer­ent mar­ket­ing ac­tiv­i­ty. At this present time it’s not work­ing for To­ba­go.

“With the mon­ey now be­ing saved, James said this can be fun­nelled in­to oth­er projects which are lined-up by the TTAL.

“We can fo­cus on do­ing more mar­ket­ing with British Air­ways to im­prove that,” James said.

Ted Greig, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ted’s Sun­shine Tours who al­so echoed sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments as James said when ever a car­ri­er ex­ists a coun­ty, there will be some im­pact.

How­ev­er, he not­ed in Vir­gin’s case this will be min­i­mal.

“The kind of traf­fic com­ing out of Vir­gin was not promis­ing,” Greig said, not­ing that pric­ing could be a fac­tor as flights on BA are cheap­er to come to To­ba­go.

“In to­day’s econ­o­my peo­ple are look­ing to stretch their funds as much as pos­si­ble es­pe­cial­ly af­ter the pan­dem­ic.

“This is a busi­ness de­ci­sion and one cer­tain­ly has to look at that,” he ex­plained.

But To­ba­go is not the on­ly place where Vir­gin’s flights were dis­con­tin­ued.

In 2019 the air­line stopped fly­ing to St Lu­cia af­ter 21 years.

How­ev­er, the car­ri­er of­fi­cial­ly re­turned to the East­ern Caribbean is­land, af­ter a hia­tus of one year and eight months.

Vir­gin At­lantic’s route, which is op­er­at­ing be­tween Lon­don Heathrow and St Lu­cia’s Hewanor­ra In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port, is op­er­at­ing three times per week, with flights on Tues­days, Thurs­days and Sat­ur­days. 

In this vein, James said all is not lost with Vir­gin as he re­mains hope­ful the air­line will re­turn to To­ba­go.

Not­ing that Vir­gin op­er­at­ed in To­ba­go for about 15 years, the TH­TA pres­i­dent said the is­land has a very good re­la­tion­ship with the air­line which it wants to con­tin­ue.

“Vir­gin is a nice air­line to be as­so­ci­at­ed with. But un­til we align out mar­ket­ing with their mar­ket­ing and change a few things around that we have to do and we are in the process of do­ing, we can make a much bet­ter in­vest­ment with that mon­ey,” James said.

Ad­di­tion­al­ly, he said all stake­hold­ers have “a lot of work to do” to get To­ba­go, as a des­ti­na­tion, back on track fol­low­ing the pan­dem­ic which great­ly af­fect­ed tourism.

“The whole in­dus­try is chang­ing, with digi­ti­sa­tion and the whole way the in­dus­try is mov­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion,” James added.

Mov­ing for­ward

To fur­ther en­hance tourism, an in tran­sit desk at Pi­ar­co Air­port is crit­i­cal for in­creased flights and there­fore, boost­ing the coun­try’s econ­o­my, James said.

Such a fa­cil­i­ty, he added, is ur­gent­ly need­ed.

“That is a lot of seats that go beg­ging. It will make it more eco­nom­i­cal for Trinidad and ben­e­fi­cial to To­ba­go if we could get that in tran­sit desk and of course, we’ve got the air­bridge prob­lem still con­tin­u­ing.

“We need more flights on that air­bridge. We are get­ting some peo­ple through KLM and some of the Amer­i­can Air­lines but there’s al­ways that fear that you’re go­ing to have to overnight in Trinidad if you can­not get through quick­ly enough on the air­bridge,” James out­lined.

Greig al­so not­ed that while To­ba­go needs more air­lift, he em­pha­sised it must be eco­nom­i­cal­ly vi­able on both sides.

“If you’re trav­el­ling to a par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tion you have op­tions and you try to use the op­tion that is less ex­pen­sive.

Ask­ing for more air­lift does not par­tic­u­lar­ly say it has to be com­ing out of the very said mar­ket. Ask­ing for more air­lift could be com­ing out of oth­er mar­kets,” Greig fur­ther ex­plained, say­ing for in­stance, these mar­kets could be Cana­da and even Scan­di­navia.And the qual­i­ty and the quan­ti­ty of ac­com­mo­da­tion must go hand-in-hand with in­creased flights.

To­ba­go, Greig ad­vised, must place it­self to be “very vi­able and at­trac­tive” and look at ways it can dif­fer­en­ti­ate it­self from the oth­er re­gions.

“It must al­so have the var­i­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives to push that nar­ra­tive. We have to con­stant­ly keep putting things on the cal­en­der; be­ing au­then­tic and unique,” he added.

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