Friday night I was invited to co-represent the Ministry of Tourism along side Deepa aboard the training ship Simón Bolívar BE-11, a Venezuelan Training ship that docks around the Caribbean. Representatives from each department of government were present as well as some local entertainment groups performing salsa dancing and Créole music. The event was by invitation or locals could purchase tickets for EC$300 (Eastern Caribbean currency), which kept the crowd to a reasonable level. St. Lucia purchased all their crude oil from Venezuela, which fosters a good relationship. The US has been cutting ties due to their partnership, but the St. Lucian government has no choice with Venezuelan prices being considerably lower relative to the US. Within their partnership is a requirement to allocate rebate funds into social systems throughout the island. The woman responsible for overseeing this allocation was aboard and was heavily guarded. I felt severely out of place, however, it was great to have such high exposure to members of both governments.
Yesterday was packed full of interviews ad site visits. Early in the morning we traveled to the southern point of the island, View Fort, to see a tour operator – Jake. Jake has his own horse farm where he offers horseback riding and trail blazing tours. He works with the Coconut Bay Resort in View Fort to bring guests to Maria Islands just off the point. On these tours he teaches visitors about native plant and animal species, how they feed, their habitats, conservation efforts for each, and general history of the island. He is also responsible for the management of all turtle nesting grounds in the area. Safe to say he is a busy man, I am felt very fortunate that I was able to meet with him.
During the peak tourism season he will have roughly 3-4 tours a week, which he claims is enough to live. As many of the beach tour operators have seen consequences from climate change, he is facing his own challenges. His horses, as well as the livestock all around the island, are vulnerable to a new species of tick. It has never before been seen on the island and they breed rapidly in the heat. This particular species prefers higher temperatures, which explains their recent presence. Sea level rise has a greater effect on the Maria Islands, as they are much smaller than the mainland, and this has had effects on his boat tours as well. He has had to alter the times in which he can bring tourists to the island. His horseback tours rely heavily on the thick vegetation through the rainforest adjacent to his farm. St. Lucia has been in a period of extreme drought, and many of the native species have fallen victim. What was once a well timed and well-coordinated tourism season will now have to be altered, which will greatly impact the livelihood of tour operators across the island.
Thankfully, the turtle nesting seasons have not changed much, according to Jake. Just yesterday morning a nest of over 200 Leatherback turtles hatched and made their way to the sea. Part of his job is to camp out on the beaches and wait for the hatchlings to emerge. If there is any light coming from beach goers, he must assist the young turtles in reaching the sea. Due to a campfire party on the beach, he had to step in an gather the leatherbacks and bring them to the water. There are three species of turtles that nest on the island, Leatherback, Hawksbill and Green. The only change Jake foresees is the balance of males to females weighing more to females due to the higher seawater temperatures.
During our discussion he expressed some of his concerns for the tourism industry moving forward. There is a defined North and South battle on the island. The capital city, Castries, is in the North, as is the majority of the tourism. Therefore, the majority of the money that is channeled back into society, which is little, is in the North. The South argues that the international airport is where the capital should be, and there is greater potential to expand the tourism industry there. However, the will power of the people in the south isn’t sufficient to support a growth in tourism. There must be a “great passion for teaching and guiding people” as Jake expressed, that you simply don’t find in the south. There would need to be a transition into a new way of life for most people, that he and Deepa feel is far fetched. The extent of the tourism training is minimal. After one day of training, individuals are being expected to manage and operate on their own, which is unrealistic and ineffective.
Both Deepa and Jake feel there is high potential for tourism expansion there, with greater investment in the training aspect and insurance that the development will foster a positive relationship between the north and south. Currently there are a few tour operators that run personal businesses, such as Jake’s, and the Reef where you can rent wind surfing gear. Jake hopes to draw more crowds with the turtle nesting. Maybe St. Lucia can have their own “Tour de Turtles”! A few additional concerns Jake mentioned were beach erosion and battle over fresh water. Many of the larger luxury resorts are close to the sea, and with increased sea level rise guests may stop coming back if there is no beach to lounge on. Additionally, there are some periods during high drought when the citizens are battling the large resorts for fresh water. The government may issue residents to cut back on water usage while the resorts carry on with business as usual. His alternatives to these issues in the south would be to develop further from the coastline, and to mandate efficiency measures. Both are measures the Ministry is working to implement in the near future.
Our second visit was to the La Tille waterfalls, which is a popular heritage tour destination. This 10-acre lot of land is owned and managed by a native Jamaican, Johnnie. On site you will see medicinal gardens, hiking trails, a natural pond to harvest tilapia, solar panels, a graduate student-constructed micro hydro plant, and the falls themselves. Johnnie is a laid back individual who understands the consequences of climate change and wants to ensure he won’t be vulnerable to harsh changes. He is living off the land and off the grid. He admits to buying certain foods that are out of season, but if that’s the worst he can admit to, I’d say he’s doing alright! He built his own home, and resides on site, with his dog Pongo, and new kitten, Lele. He expressed to me that the efforts he is putting in aren’t due to outside pressure, or even his own mind, but from his heart. He feels a strong transcendence in nature, a relationship that he cannot spoil.
On a side note – I was baffled to find out the research team that constructed his micro-hydro station were from UVM (University of Vermont)! He was just as baffled when I told him I was from Burlington. “Small world” he said! The students were not prepared for working in such harsh conditions though and many were tempted to go home early, but not before completing their project. Many have become life-long friends and have since returned to check on the status of their work.
In two short site visits it became apparent that the tourism industry is already feelings the impacts of climate change. Loss of critical vegetation, increased temperatures, beach erosion, sea level rise and salt-water intrusion are each causing their own negative effects on the industry and causing operators to find alternatives to prevent further setbacks. Destinations need to adapt to survive, and the tourism industry as a whole will need to explore the south for expansion. The goal is to use the uniqueness of each region to create a sustainable tourism product.