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St.Eustatius Sustainable Conference - Tourism Development in the Community

By Nicole Vaugeois

Developing tourism in small island developing states has been the subject of much academic research over the past 20 years. When thinking about tourism in the Caribbean, it likely conjures up images of large cruise ships, all-inclusive resorts and mass tourism. Indeed these images were confirmed for me after a period of living in the Caribbean in the 1990’s in Puerto Rico. So, this week, after being invited to speak at the 3rd St. Eustatius Sustainable Conference – on Community Tourism Development, I was surprised to learn about the state of tourism development in some of the smaller islands.

Tourism on St. Eustatius is currently not well developed, however discussions about how to enhance both its product and marketing are taking place. Numerous stakeholders have been engaged in learning more about tourism over the last three years by bringing together speakers and workshop facilitators from around the world.  They are not interested in repeating the mistakes from other destinations and instead, want to develop sustainable tourism. I had the pleasure to gain and share insights with the delegates at the conference from Sept 24-27, 2014 and some of my take aways are:

  • Earlston McPhee, Director of Sustainable Tourism for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism highlighted macro level shifts in global tourism traffic and left the audience with a clear message. The Caribbean is lagging behind other regions in growth and is suffering from tremendous leakage.  He stressed that the region can no longer ignore consumer trends and must design experiences for visitors that create a sense of place and move the image of the region past its former sun, sand, sea identify.

  • Diane McIntyre-Pike is from Jamaica and has been instrumental in developing a true community based tourism initiative that has won numerous international awards for best practice.  Working with local residents, she has developed a series of experiences for visitors to allow them to engage with the Jamaican community. I am hoping to Skype Diane in as a speaker for the innovation infusion series this year to allow others to benefit from her inspiration and expertise.

  • Jem Winston from 3 Rivers EcoLodge in Dominica spoke about his efforts to establish a homestay initiative that, like Diana, has won numerous international awards. Jem highlighted the process that he used to develop the homestay and all of the guidelines that make it work resulting in win-win-win-win scenario for the island. I also asked Jem to do a talk for the Innovation Infusion series so keep posted to learn more about this opportunity as well.

  • Walter Hellebrand is the Monuments Director of St. Eustatius and spoke about how to make money from the incredible heritage of the island. I was very happy to hear his clearly delivered message about the need to protect, restore and promote the ruins on the island as they contain what could be, an extremely unique tourism product for the island. 

Since I  arrived on St.Eustatius I have been fascinated by the numerous ruins all around lower and upper town.  The remnants of the former glory days of the island when it was known as “the Golden Rock” and the largest trade centre in the Caribbean, these ruins contain many currently untold stories that most destinations would love to have!  As I walked around the island, they evoked questions for me as I wondered what each old building used to be or what the town used to look like. There are numerous opportunities to use these ruins to distinguish St. Eustatius through interpretive trails, signage, and restoration.  

On my last day, I was happy to find an example of entrepreneurs that have restored some of the ruins into a beautiful dive shop and gift shop.  Leontine and Tony Durby, owners of Mazinga on the Bay showed me images of the evolution of their restoration project and shared their passion for the heritage of the island.  I commend their efforts and hope that someday, when I return to St. Eustatius, that a series of thriving businesses exist, all in restored buildings like this.

What did I contribute to the conference?  I struggled in preparing this talk as understanding audience and context is so important when I develop a talk.  Luckily I was able to speak a couple of days into the conference and felt that I could contribute a message that had been under-emphasized. I was fortunate to speak in a session with another academic, Dr. Sherma Roberts from the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus who eloquently delivered a message about the beauty and the beast of community tourism.  She set the tone for me to stress the importance of the community establishing some control over tourism by enhancing their knowledge of tourism and their own realities. By sharing some of my work with Hornby Island, Tofino, and the Southern Gulf Islands, I was hopefully able to impart the message that moving forward, they need to develop a clear understanding of their resident hopes, fears and concerns with tourism as well as knowledge of who their visitors are.  These, while perhaps obvious steps, are so often not undertaken in most destinations and eventually, they can often become the cause for misunderstandings, power struggles and tensions that prevent community based tourism from delivering the benefits that could result in destinations.

Thank you to the organizers of the conference for inviting me to speak and sharing your realities with me. I hope that the path of inquiry into sustainable tourism results in the promotion and protection of your natural and cultural amenities for residents and visitors, for years to follow.

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