Tobago’s tourism industry has been in the doldrums, but one west coast village is bucking the trend with a lively trade in visitors. What has it been doing right?
WORDS By: Pat Ganase
Published in CONTACT Magazine
Castara sells itself as the “real deal” in Tobago: an authentic Caribbean fishing village. But its property owners claim they don’t attend trade shows; they don’t advertise. How, you might wonder, is it doing such good business? Is word of mouth so powerful? Is there some other way to reach a global market?
If you search booking.com for accommodation in Castara, Tobago, you’ll find 15 to 17 properties. SeaScape on Heavenly Bay, The Naturalist Beach Resort, Cottage Mango and Castara Retreats have recent rave reviews. Then there are Sealevel Guesthouse, Lillibets, Little House on the Hill, Porridge’s Place, Boatview or Riverview Cottage. All have sea views and wifi. The top three reasons to visit are said to be “sunsets, scenery and relaxation.”
On TripAdvisor, the top-rated accommodations in Castara are Castara Retreats, AliBaba’s Sea Breeze Apartments and Carpe Diem Villa with “sea views from the bed”. High ceilings and a 45-foot verandah are noted, along with “great snorkelling, diving, swimming, bird-watching, fishing, stargazing or walking in the rain forest; a million miles away from the hectic pace of normal life!”
There’s a similar story on Air BnB. You can see popular properties “just booked”: Blue Mango Cottages, Golden Apple Villa, and Little House on the Hill. Rooms available in Sealevel Guesthouse, Leapfrog, Angel Retreat, Seabreeze Cottage or the Roundhouse. For the family, there’s the house at Toad Heights, home away from home for six guests in three bedrooms, five minutes’ walk to the beach.
The Castara strategy
Word of Castara’s continuing ability to attract visitors, and its 60 per cent repeat business rate, has been getting out. Never mind the transport challenges, the decline in the Trinidad and Tobago economy, or even the village’s remoteness, clinging to the rain forest on the sunset-facing coast of Tobago. Castara is succeeding with a simple strategy for tourism, and is attracting visitors from all over Europe, the United States and Canada, not to mention Russia, Chile, and Brazil.
Over the past four years, the Castara Tourism Development Association (CTDA) has brought together businesses operating in Castara. It holds the view that all business in Castara is tourism-related. So whether you sell fruit or fish, rent cars or rooms, make meals or bread, take tours to the rain forest or reef, teach in the school or collect bamboo for Bonfire night, you have a stake in the future of Castara.
Bertil “AliBaba” Taylor, owner and operator of AliBaba’s Sea Breeze and Tours and president of the CTDA, explains: “We make sure visitors get more than expected, from arrival to departure. Castara is a real village. Safety is a big thing in our village; visitors must feel safe. They are invited to take part in local traditions, see a genuine way of life. They feel welcome in every part of the village. There are visitors who are coming back for more than 20 years; they book the next year when they are leaving this year. By word of mouth, they bring or send friends.
“We have never been to a trade show. AliBaba’s Sea Breeze is listed on myTobago, Air BnB, Bookings.com and TripAdvisor; and of course, there’s our website and Facebook page. We have a community that sells itself, person to person. The model baffles the authorities; we are getting more arrivals than anywhere else in Tobago. Castara people are very close, keeping culture and tradition alive. We all benefit from tourism, there’s no need for all-inclusives.”
Bertil completed AliBaba’s Sea Breeze – six rooms – in 2003. There were only a few guesthouses back then. But in 2018,” he says, “we have 150 rooms in 30-plus properties, seven restaurants and a few bars.
“We have regular weekly activity that attracts people from all over the island, locals and visitors. On Wednesday, local African drumming; moko jumbies. Thursday, Bonfire on the beach; live pan music. Saturday night, De Coffee Shop Barbecue.”
Bertil and five brothers followed their father into the business of providing tours, transportation, and rooms. Today, his parents operate the second traditional clay oven in Castara, behind Cascreole restaurant, which is run by another Taylor. The two ovens operate on a co-operative system, with the village bakers producing specialty bread (pumpkin, pawpaw, and whole wheat) and pastries (coconut tarts, drops, pone).
“The purpose of CTDA,” says Bertil, “was to share new ideas and to act cohesively. We promote keeping the village clean, with proper bins for recycling. We talk to the kids about protecting the environment. We recently launched a project to ban styrofoam and plastic bags. Over the summer, the kids will design and we will make cotton re-usable bags for distribution throughout the village.” They are already looking at options for alternative energy, wind and solar.
“Our reef is right off the beach; you can snorkel there. As tour operators, we educate visitors that you cannot walk on the corals; you cannot take anything from the reef. Villagers and visitors are regularly informed.”
Steve Felgate of Castara Retreats concurs: “We believe that tourism must be founded on principles of shared opportunity, to ensure that it sustains the local economy and culture without damage to the environment.”
A founding member of the CTDA, Steve is looking at niche markets. In 2017, Castara Retreats built a yoga platform with an incomparable view. Next, they are looking at the market for weddings: “We already have a steady stream of small weddings of eight to 20 persons. We can sleep 42 guests; and we have a pavilion that can seat up to 90 at Castara Retreats.”
Castara’s secret seems to be a careful mix of technology with on-the-ground human warmth and community.
The avenue for communicating with a global market has been consistent. Steve says: “Our best strategy is a well-presented and informative website. We pay attention to feedback and reviews on the main internet sites. The internet is fundamental to our success. We do very little marketing in print. We took a lot of care to create a website that reflects a place where visitors receive a warm welcome and find others with a similar outlook on life.”
Tobago is actively supported by a network of people who love Tobago, many of whom may not even live there. The Castara model need not be confined to Castara.
The myTobago website, for example, launched in 2002, was built and is maintained by Steve and Jill Wooler, who regularly return from England to Tobago. Wooler claims, “It is the only comprehensive and honest guide to holiday accommodation on the island. We include every hotel, resort, guesthouse, inn, apartment, cottage, bed & breakfast or villa that we can trace. Most of our research is conducted during an annual two-month winter pilgrimage to Tobago, reviewing hotels, guesthouses, apartments and villas. It’s a hard life!”