Tobago stakeholders have said the government’s decision to increase fuel prices would place further hardship on tourism-related businesses still reeling from the effects of the covid19 pandemic over the past two years.
In the Parliament on Friday, Finance Minister Colm Imbert announced that from April 19, 2022, the prices of premium gasoline and super gasoline will be adjusted by $1 per litre to $6.75 and $5.97 per litre, respectively, while the price of diesel will be adjusted by 50 cents per litre to $3.91 per litre.
Veteran tour boat operator Michael Frank said the move could be disastrous for the industry.
“We are already reeling from two years of not working,” he told Sunday Newsday.
With the recent removal of safe zones and covid19 restrictions in most sectors, including beaches and rivers, Frank, owner of Frankie Tours, said tour boat operators had anticipated an almost immediate increase in visitors wanting to go on boat trips to the Buccoo Reef and Nylon Pool.
But he said this has not been the case.
“The passengers are down right now but they are projected to go up as soon as Easter reaches.”
Frank, who has been in the business for more than 30 years, said many people want to go on reef tours but have no money to pay.
“People are coming on the boat but they have no money to pay for it. They literally begging us to go out on a boat trip. So, it is going to be very hard to balance it with the increase in fuel prices now.”
He added, “I don’t know how we are going to survive. We do not want to raise prices again because things are already hard for everybody generally.”
At present, a trip to the Buccoo Reef costs $150 for adults and $75 for children between the ages of three and 11. The operators do not charge for children under three.
Frank said adults rarely pay the $150.
“People really bawling. They literally cannot afford it.”
He said he recently had to accommodate a woman who had about six children.
“She said it was the first time she brought them on a holiday in four years. She was the only person that paid. So, what you will do with them. You can’t just turn them away because they have no money. You have to give and take.”
With the prices of fuel set to increase in just over a week’s time, Frank said, “This adds to the pressure and the bottom line is that we have to find a way around it.”
He said he intended to meet with other boat operators on Saturday to discuss the future of the industry.
Saying the increase in fuel prices will hurt his colleagues, president of the All Tobago Fisherfolk Association Curtis Douglas repeated his call for a gas rebate for fishermen on the island.
If not, he said, the prices of fish will increase.
“The only thing I could see how fishermen could be comforted is if, especially our fishermen in Tobago, get our gas rebate. Then we will be able to control the prices of our fish. But if gas goes up, fish will have to go up.”
Douglas believes the government did not consider Tobago fishermen when the decision was made.
To compound matters, he said, “Most of the natural gas comes from damaging the same fishing environment, so I don’t see why fishermen should not get that gas rebate.”
Douglas regarded the decision as unfortunate, saying he was “very disappointed.”
The Tobago Business Chamber said while it fully understands and appreciates the need of the Government to balance its budgetary allocations and ensure that revenue matches expenditure, the increase in fuel prices could have kicked in from January 1, 2023, and not next week.
“We would have hoped that the government would have probably tried make an announcement to say maybe from January 1, 2023, this price increase would take effect so people will have some time to adjust to it. They would have and some time to make preparations for it,” the chamber’s chairman Martin George said on Saturday in a video posted on Whatsapp.
He argued citizens are still struggling from the effects of the pandemic.
“We are of the view that the recently announced price increases come at a particularly improprietous time for the nation and it’s particularly unfortunate that coming straight out of the pandemic, it doesn’t appear to be the best thought out option given the fact that we have now emerged from all the restrictions.”
George added, “Businesses are now trying to get themselves back on their feet and to be hit with this, it is not only going to affect business owners but every single member of the public, because once you have the cost of fuel going up, then everyone is affected by the knock on effect.”
He said if the increase in fuel prices were to kick in from January 1, 2023, businesses and citizens would get some time to rebound.
“Businesses would have some time to get back their sales and customers back together rather than being hit with this after we have had the recent increases in the price of bread, flour.”
In light of the government’s decision, George said, “It is like the citizenry is reeling from aftershock and aftershock and aftershock and it really does not augur well for the well-being of the nation if it is that we do things in this manner.”
He said the government must employ more creative and proactive steps to manage the economy as opposed to “simply resorting to the knee-jerk reaction of raising taxes, raising prices on citizens as your only innovative and creative way of trying to increase revenue and balance your budget.”