Do we need Sandals in Tobago?

Two Trinbagonian marine scientists, Jahson Alemu and Anjani Ganase, both PhD candidates, team up to discuss the impacts of the proposed Sandals development on the Buccoo Reef Marine Park. This article first appeared in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday October 6, 2016.
Follow them on twitter: @jahson_alemu and @AnjGanase

Nestled in the southern Caribbean is the tiny island paradise of Tobago. This idyllic island offers the best features of a Caribbean get away while retaining its unique identity, unexploited by the pressures of large-scale tourism. Tourism is undoubtedly the mainstay of the island and the result has been steady growth and some investment in the industry over the last two decades. In a competitive tourism industry, the TT government is seeking to up the ante by inviting the Sandals Resort chain to Tobago. Sandals is the one of the recognised tourism brands of the Caribbean.

Overview of No Man’s Land, Bon Accord Lagoon and Buccoo Reef Marine Park.

Recent proclamations have confirmed that the Angostura Estate and No Man’s Land (also known as Sheerbird’s Point) is the location under consideration for development. It is likely that other sites are being scouted, but for now we will focus on No Man’s Land and the surrounding habitats, including the Bon Accord Lagoon and Buccoo Reef Area.

Bon Accord Lagoon and No Man’s Land are unique public spaces etched into the identity of Tobagonians, that serve as major tourism attractions of great economic, cultural and environmental significance. The lagoon waters link important habitats, such as the mangroves and seagrass to the coral reefs. These are essential habitats for many species of birds, fish, crabs and rays. If the resort were developed in this area, would traditional uses be allowed to continue and how will the environment be affected? How will the identity of this piece of Tobago change? The proposed plan is for a self-contained, all-inclusive establishment of massive proportions, over 1000 rooms.

This issue is not specific to Tobago and so we can look to other examples on how these developments can effect on both the environment and communities. Here are five environmental considerations if a resort is to be developed on the No Man’s Land area:

1.     Water quality - Mangroves serve as a natural trap for sediments and nutrients from the land before being released into the ocean. Seagrasses also remove more sediment from the water; allowing cleaner water to flow onto the reefs. The likely removal of mangrove and other wetland vegetation associated with a resort development in the No Man’s Land area will result in the loss of this buffer of land-based runoff such as may be expected with heavy rainfall during the construction and operational phases of the resort. The increased amount of sediment and nutrients in the marine environment will not only cloud the water column but have adverse effects on the seagrass beds, fish nursery areas, and coral reef health. Mangroves also act as a natural “sink” (nature’s storage area) for nutrients.

2.     Coastal Erosion – Beaches and coastal areas are a dynamic environment. The natural sand trapping habitats of mangroves and lagoon systems governs the stability of the beach areas. Further the removal of coastal vegetation and the addition of solid structure can exacerbate erosion processes and change the natural hydrodynamic regime of the area affecting water flow and sand transport.

3.     Effects on wildlife – Vegetation clearance will result in loss of habitat for bird species, and mangrove clearance will further result in the loss of habitat for juvenile fish and shellfish, many of which are ecologically and commercially important species e.g. parrotfish, snapper, crabs and lobster. Diving, snorkelling and glass-bottom boat tours, as well as commercial and recreational tours all rely on the presence of fish, turtles, sharks and marine life in surrounding waters for a sustainable income.

4.     Degradation of Buccoo Reef - The Buccoo Reef is home to a diversity of marine life and its health relies on the healthy waterways of the mangrove and lagoon system. If this connection is broken or degraded there will be serious consequences for the sustained health of the reef. Buccoo Reef already has a long history of local and regional environmental disturbances. Recommendations have been proposed for its protection and conservation since the 1960s to improve the ecosystem and the livelihoods of those that rely on it. The Buccoo Marine Park was designated in the 1970s. The Buccoo Reef was also named a park of importance to Trinidad and Tobago according to the Ramsar Convention.

5.     Loss of valuable environmental assets – 40 % of the tourists that visit Tobago come for coral reef related activities. Healthy coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves alone are estimated to provide 7 trillion US dollars in assets worldwide! Providing income from tourism, shoreline protection and fisheries. The current estimation of (direct and indirect) economic benefit from coral reef tourism for Tobago is about US $100 – 130 million dollars annually. Reef associated fisheries add an additional $1 million USD, while the annual value of shoreline protection is estimated at 18- 33 million USD; this is expected to increase with the predicted sea-level rise from climate change. The loss of these ecosystems will have severe economic consequences on all stakeholders that rely on them (World Resource Institute Report 2008).

The Sandals development is envisioned to result in a boom to Tobago’s tourism industry (in three years) with expected revenues to the country through increased international tourism to the island and opportunities for the development of downstream business and enhancement of existing ones. The development of large resorts on small remote islands is not a unique venture, however there is need for transparency in the process that includes stakeholders. At the very least, with consultation, policies need to be put in place to ensure that quality of life is maintained.

Communities of Tobago have the right to ask for thorough environmental and social impact assessments. This is not just someone else’s vacation paradise, it is our home. Furthermore, Sandals resort may be all-inclusive but what separates Sandals in Tobago from Sandals anywhere else in the Caribbean? If the environmental and cultual features that make the area unique are not retained, then we would have lost what attracts visitors to the island.

As the Tobago economy grows and expands it is inevitable that there will be conflicts for natural resource use e.g. between coastal communities and tourism developments. While several laws and policies have been implemented, there is still a lack of enforcement. The Buccoo Reef/Bon Accord Complex has been designated a Ramsar site of ecological significance; the Buccoo Reef Marine Park was declared a restricted area more than 40 years ago; but poor management of human activities continues to stress the area.

Recently, President Obama, understanding the value of healthy oceans and marine ecosystems to the US, established the world’s largest marine reserve north of Hawaii twice the size of Texas. Here’s why:

“ The health of our planet’s oceans determine for the most part the health of our bodies and the health of our economies and while it’s our ocean’s contours that shape our coastlines, it is what we decide and do here that will shape our ocean’s future (and ours)”  – President Obama, 2016

We can promote tourism in the Tobago without having to compromise our paradise. One important suggestion – touted by several bodies over the years including the Buccoo Reef Trust, UWI, UTT and IMA - includes making the Buccoo Reef a fully functional marine park. Healthy and protected coral reefs will boost current tourism and fisheries. Improved regulation and protection of these areas contribute economically by creating jobs for the protection and utilisation and attracting a different type of visitor.

The Marine Areas Preservation and Enhancement Act 1970, includes essential steps for the protection and enhancement of wildlife in the area, and promoted more scientific understanding of the area. Internationally the science of coral reefs, mangroves and reef organisms is of great interest for environmental value. Instituting a university-associated research station, with programmes and facilities run by Trinbagonians will provide jobs and income and learning opportunities for those who live in the area. This will attract visiting scientists and other educators as well as local, regional and international students.

Reference: WRI report -

Views of the proposed Sandals and Beaches developments


  1. Excellent article. Has anyone given any thought to the fact that other similar resorts within Tobago are never fully occupied? If hotels such as Coco Reef, Magdalena etc cannot seem to operate at full capacity, I can't understand what magic is being attempted by the construction of a 1,000 room all inclusive resort.
    From where I see it, this is going to cause irreparable damage to Tobago's environment, economy and people.

  2. I agree with you Fraaaz. Thank you for a concise and well written piece. In addition to depletion of the natural resources your article addressed, the Sandals project has the potential also to disrupt the character and economic well being of the Trinbagoians living, working and doing business on the island. By bringing in big monopolies such as Sandals without the public understanding the costs and benefits of the project, i.e. how does it benefit the country and citizens; first and foremost, may lead to some unintended economic consequences now and in the future. We do not want to give up Tobago’s competitive and unique advantage to become just another rum and coco-cola tourism destination. Even if the project must go on, the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago must be part of the decision making process.

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