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.
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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