INEXCUSABLE and unacceptable!
That is how Joint Select Committee (JSC) member Wade Mark labelled the lack of an internal auditor, an external auditor and the non-submission of audited financial statements for 2017, 2018 and 2019 by the Tobago Tourism Agency.
Mark said the Tobago House of Assembly, which is responsible for the oversight of the agency, had “fallen down on the job”.
Mark made his remarks at yesterday’s meeting of the JSC on State Enterprises at Cabildo Building, Port of Spain, which was enquiring into the operations of the two tourism agencies, Tobago Tourism Agency and Trinidad Tourism Ltd.
Mark asked how much was allocated to the Tobago Tourism Agency since its establishment in July 2019.
Chairman of the board Dr Sherma Roberts said, in 2018/2019, the agency made a request of $140 million, it received $20 million; in 2019/2020 it made a request for $130 million, it received $20 million. “There is a big gap between our ambition and the financing of our projects,” Roberts said.
Mark asked Roberts to explain why the agency had not been able to establish an audit committee of the board, why it had not hired an external auditor and why it had not established an internal audit unit, given the fact that since 2017 it has been allocated $54 million from the taxpayers.
Roberts said the agency had to prioritise what was important for the functioning and the take-off of the agency and the revitalisation of Tobago. She said the board determined that getting the branding and the name of Tobago established in the source market was most important, given the fierce competition for the tourism market. She said the agency focused on ensuring that airlift was maintained, ensuring the Virgin and British Airways did not pull out of Tobago, ensuring that hotels remained open, ensuring that guest houses could function.
She said “while working at the mechanism of internal financial governance at a slower pace,” the board felt that what was the priority was marketing and getting the awareness of Tobago as a destination out there. She said an RFP has been sent out for an internal auditor and a short list is to come to the Board in February to choose an internal and external auditing firm. “It was a matter of the delicate balance in how to utilise the limited resources that were sporadic and intermittent, to the best of our ability. So we are not unaware that we have been less aggressive as far as internal auditing is concerned, but we have put plans in place” Roberts said, adding that it was “not a wild spending of the State’s finances”.
Mark said: “With the greatest respect, public accountability is extremely serious business and you cannot be allocated over $54 million over this period and there is no urgency...in having proper accountability. No internal auditing function, no external audit company employed. This agency is going forward with no systems of accountability for public monies. That is inexcusable”. He said there are no audited financial statements from the Tobago Agency for 2017, 2018 and 2019.
In response to questions, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism Richard Madray said Cabinet had indicated that the THA would be responsible for the oversight of this Agency.
JSC chairman Anthony Vieira said according to the practices outlined in the State Enterprises Performance Monitoring Manual, which the agency is suppose to follow State enterprises must appoint an audit committee. “It doesn’t say when funds are available,” he said.
In response to a question from JSC member Fazal Karim, CEO of the Tobago Tourism Agency, Louis Lewis, said $80 million had been expended on airlift in the last two years. Asked by Karim whether there had been any instances of investigations of the misappropriation of funds, Graham said investigations were being conducted with respect to $8 million.
Lewis said the Tobago Tourism Agency was encouraged by the fact that it had been able to stem the tide of the five-year continuous decline.
He said for 2019 there was a two per cent increase in direct stayover arrivals and a 50 per cent increase in arrivals coming by the ferry, 20 per cent increase coming by air and five per cent increase in arrivals coming by yachts.
He said the cruise sector had remained a challenge and existed outside of the power of the Agency—“how do we get a better Port facility, how do we get a better airport, how do create duty free shopping experiences and a better sense on arrival, how to get the country to go green and encourage people to avoid single use plastics, all of which impacts on the ability to market Tobago as a destination”. He noted that arrivals “had ballooned out of Canada, in particular”, which was the benefit of aligning a tour operator with a hotel property and an airline. “We have moved from less than 1,000 to 2,000,” he said.
Chairman of TTL Howard Chin Lee said the TTL was focusing on events tourism, convention tourism and sports tourism, in contrast to the Tobago “sun, sand and sea” type of tourism. He said the TTL had a one-year strategic plan and had hired a firm. He said since July of last year there had been an uptick in tourist arrivals. He said TTL was given a budget to deal with marketing, development of sites and infrastructure and for improving the flow of investment to Trinidad and Tobago. He said when he assumed office in July 2019 the organisation had a staff of five, which has been increased to 25.