Trinidad and Tobago, known the world over for its dazzling annual Carnival, is home to a broader, thriving cultural scene. The twin-island Caribbean nation boasts outsized achievements in the arts: a pair of Nobel Prize-winning authors, internationally lauded fashion designers, thought-provoking visual artists and talented musicians.
Peer into its history and you will discover a cross-pollination of people, ideas and traditions, a cultural trifecta that today sees the pocket-sized island burnishing its status as a regional hub for arts and entertainment, to attract foreign investment in its tourism and creative sectors. With pristine beaches, and a reputation for being among the world’s top ecotourism destinations, there is a lot of investment potential here.
But this tourism story isn’t all about tantalizingly blue seas. Drive south along the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway, pass the Caroni Bird Sanctuary that’s home to more than 150 species of birds, including Eudocimus ruber — the Scarlet Ibis to locals — and it takes 30 minutes to discover the country’s industrial clout. Trinidad, after all, is the number-one single-site exporter of methanol and ammonia in the world and a major player in oil, gas and downstream petrochemicals. Energy dollars and sheer political ambition have combined to take on a new challenge: infrastructure.
In 2012, Trinidad and Tobago attracted more than 400,000 visitors. Today, there’s construction of new hotels, boardwalks and other amenities under way, and that number is likely to grow over the next few years. Perhaps even more impressive, investment in the creative industries is enabling local talent to enrich the communities in which they live while attracting unprecedented attention from their international counterparts and the global public.
The burgeoning local film industry now generates almost US$1 million in net revenue, and 20 production companies and 57 companies providing support services and cumulatively employ more than 1,200 full-time staff. This success is matched by an influx of international film crews seeking the right topography, adequate production facilities and geographic convenience. They are equally lured by cash incentives, including a rebate of up to 35 percent for expenditures incurred while filming on-location, plus an additional 5 percent cash back on the cost of local labour.
Meanwhile, 33-year-old designer Anya Ayoung-Chee put Trinidad and Tobago on the map for fashion when she won season 9 of Project Runway (the American reality TV series focusing on Fashion Design) in 2011. In January, Vogue Italia editor Marilena Borgna caused a stir when she arrived in Trinidad with her team to produce a runway show and shoot a fashion feature, due out in May, for the storied magazine.
In music, just as Jamaica successfully mainstreamed reggae, Trinidad and Tobago is promoting its homegrown musical traditions on the international scene. Soca, a lighthearted derivative of Calypso characterized by a quicker beat and less-satirical lyrics, is catching on beyond the region and even looking to crown a new King. The song “Differentology” by soca artist Bunji Garlin just won the 2013 Soul Train Award for best international performance.
Further development of the creative industries has enormous potential to grow the national economy as the government diversifies away from oil and gas. Still, for all the buzz around Trinidad and Tobago’s performers, artists, filmmakers, fashion designers and cultural icons, the country wants to do more to translate international admiration into revenue.
In 2011, the creative industries generated approximately US$611 million. While this figure isn’t astronomical, Minister of Planning and the Economy Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie aptly observed that it constitutes a sound foundation on which to build.
Policies are in place to bolster that foundation by attracting more foreign investment. Aside from Trinidad and Tobago’s longstanding appeal to European and North American investors, the country is targeting Indian and Chinese wealth through infrastructure upgrades, efforts to streamline the bureaucracy, and especially tax incentives. For instance, private investors receive a 150 percent tax allowance for projects that promote local culture. Trinidad and Tobago is the only Caribbean country to provide cash incentives to filmmakers, and evidence suggests the approach is working. In the case of the 2013 independent film Home Again, Canadian filmmakers Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland wanted to film in Jamaica, where their story was set. But they abandoned the idea in favour of filming in Trinidad after negotiating a 35 percent rebate. Trinidad benefited from about $1 million the film crew spent on food, accommodations and location services, as well as employment of locals as extras.
New institutions are also being created to court and guide investors. In 2013, the formation of Trinidad and Tobago Creative Industries Company, CreativeTT for short, merged existing entities into a single platform slated to support further development of the film, fashion and music industries, as well as the country’s annual Carnival. Likewise, invesTT, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Investment created in 2011, facilitates investment in the non-oil sectors. They provide start-up assistance and solutions for investors looking to establish or expand their business in Trinidad and Tobago.
Already, there are signs of progress. From 2011 to 2014, Trinidad and Tobago jumped from 88th on the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” index to 66th. Trade Minister Vasant Bharath wants the country to be in the top 50 by the end of this year.
The message is clear: Trinidad and Tobago is investment-ready. Already a powerful force in the oil and gas market, the country is deeply committed to spurring growth in the creative industries. With accomplished musicians and fashion designers making international headlines — not to mention a Carnival that has inspired similar celebrations around the world — investors will do well to look at Trinidad and Tobago as a place of opportunities.