Our Readers' Opinions
October 7, 2016
Tourism development and poverty in SVG

by G Marlon Mills ([email protected])

The recently announced sale of the Peter’s Hope estate is no doubt a timely development for the current administration, considering the near completion of the Argyle International Airport, which has been promoted as the engine of growth for future development in St Vincent and Grenadines (SVG) since its inception. According to an article in the Searchlight Newspaper, “Investors interested in business ventures in SVG – PM” (Sept. 26, 2016, p.12) 31 acres of land was sold to an unnamed entity for EC$7 million, and will facilitate 40 villas and “a small hotel of about 100 rooms”. {{more}}The article also stated that other investors are interested in developments at Union Island and Chatham Bay, and that Sandals Resorts was also looking at the development potential at Mt Wynne. No doubt Vincentians at home and abroad will be very pleased with the prospects of these developments in that they will bring much needed jobs, a boost to an otherwise stagnant economy; and affirmation that the long awaited economic take-off is finally coming to pass. But will it? And if it does, who are the likely beneficiaries?

There is no question of the benefits of tourism development globally. Tourism provides employment and generates income; contributes to gender equality and education; exchange of knowledge between visitors and the host community; creates inter-sectoral linkages; opens up opportunities for entrepreneurship and small, medium and micro-enterprise; creates opportunities for infrastructural development; and opportunities for the conservation of the natural environment (Meyer, 2010). We in SVG are not strangers to these benefits, as tourism has made a significant contribution to local economic development over the past 50 years, and improved the lives and livelihoods of many Vincentians.

But it is important to acknowledge also that there are very many negative impacts to tourism development. Considering the fact there is no National Tourism Plan to serve as a road map to our tourism development – which is usually expedited through a process of extensive consultations with the public and private sector and local communities, and resource base evaluations by tourism professionals – we are left to assess our tourism development on the basis of each individual development plan, along with the experiences we might have had with tourism development projects in our recent history. We can also draw on the experiences of regional and international tourism development and industry trends as a guide to critically analyse the likely outcomes.

So, what do we know about the proposed Peters Hope Development thus far? We know that 31 acres of prime land was sold at a price of EC$5.18 per square foot (US$1.91/£1.48/Can. $2.51), and that the developers are of Canadian origin but we don’t know who they are or anything about their investment history. Despite the fact that the Physical Planning and Development Board has not yet advertised the development application for public scrutiny, it is common knowledge that the developers will be seeking and will most likely get permission to replace the naturally occurring black volcanic sand with imported white sand; that the naturally occurring volcanic stones that serve as sea defences will be removed; and the beach will be declared a private beach. Since the ground breaking is planned for as early as December, 2016, that serves as an indication that the development project is not likely to have benefitted from an Environmental [and Social] Impact Assessment (EIA).

The sale price of the land at Peters Hope is mind boggling. At EC$5.18 per square foot, this is just about the value of a child’s portion of pelau at any cook shop in Kingstown. These land values have not existed around St Vincent for quite a long time – not even for the most undesirable land and one wonders how this will impact on current prices in and around St Vincent. One certainty is that prices at Peters Hope will most definitely influence the price of land at Mt Wynne when those lands come up for negotiation.

All this sounds eerily familiar after having intimately experienced the vagaries of the Buccament Bay Resort development by Harlequin Resorts, which was the source of tremendous social upheaval and displacement of farmers to give way for the development. Persons were intimidated into selling their land at rock bottom prices and so were those who opposed the entire direction in which the development was moving. Case in point was the sedition charges brought against Ordan Graham in 2006 for merely stating words to the effect that ‘unless the government withdrew its draconian policies blood would run in St Vincent and the Grenadines’. He was referring to the likely social fallout from the loss of livelihood opportunities as a consequence of these types of developments. Those charges were relentlessly pursued by the police authorities and were eventually found to be entirely baseless by the justice system (Magisterial Criminal Appeal No 56 of 2006).

Adding insult to injury was the fact that the developers behind Harlequin were dragged by investors before the courts in the UK (Mail Online, Feb. 25, 2013) and eventually St Vincent for fraud and other undesirable financial activities (iWitness News, June 28, 2016). Harlequin has also been a company of concern in many countries. This along with the unmitigated environmental impacts has been the source of great resentment against this particular tourist development.

In the case of Canouan, that development has gone through so many redevelopment and new development phases over the past 25 years – leaving many Vincentians wondering if Canouan will ever become a functioning tourism destination. Synonymous with the Buccament Bay Resort development was the land grabbing experience, social upheaval and displacement, exclusion of locals, and an immeasurable amount of environmental damage – again, sources of tremendous resentment on the part of locals.

Years ago, it used to be that our main peeves with foreign direct investments in tourism development were centred on the inequalities in tax exemptions dished out to the foreign investors versus those received by local operators. Nowadays, exemptions from the laws of the land seem to be the order of the day. In spite of the numerous environmental laws to protect coastal areas and encouraging language espoused in our various policy documents – such as “conserving the natural resources through effective utilization and management” and “to engender a greater sense of community and social responsibility” (National Social and Economic Development Plan, 2013 to 2025) – developers are given free reign to do as they please. No doubt some of these exemptions may include the protection of workers’ rights via trade union agreements and existing labour laws.

In Canouan, the developers were allowed to dredge the reef at Godhal Lagoon in spite of the fact that the lease agreement clearly stipulates that dredging is not permitted (Canouan Lease Ratification Act No. 9 of 1990). After numerous communications to the relevant authorities including a report on the expectant environmental damage (Price, 2010) everyone in authority pretended it was a non-event and nothing was ever done to curtail their activities; even in the face of civil society court action against the developers (SVG High Court, No. 408 of 2010). Of course civil society has no power in enforcing the environmental laws, only the respective elected politicians can.

More recently, developers of the Glossy Bay Marina were proud to announce the completion of works and commencement of Marina operations by December, 2016. However, despite the acknowledgement by Godfred Pompey, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of National Security that an EIA is a mandatory requirement, in an interview with iWitness News, he stated “that study is ongoing and at completion must be provided to the minister – that is the Prime Minister, for review. So, it is a basic requirement of the project” (iWitness News, May 16, 2016). But international standards dictate that Environmental Impact Assessments are completed prior to the commencement of a development and are subject to reviews and public discussion. They also serve to inform and assist in mitigating adverse social and environmental impacts associated with development projects.

The environmental damage associated with dredging and removing the natural sand from the beach and replacing it with a foreign import is a slow process but very precise in its effect. In the first instance destruction of ecosystems by disturbing the sea bed and removing beach sand will impact very negatively on marine organisms and affect fisheries and other ecosystem services vital to the health and wellbeing of all Vincentians. The risk factors associated with the importation of alien species in the imported sand can also be extremely problematic since there are seldom natural predators to compete with the new arrivals. Hence populations can out-compete native species for food and habitat and can wipe out entire species within a geographic space, causing costly environmental damage and in some cases the spread of diseases.

Grievous cultural and historic loss was also a prominent feature in both the Canouan and Buccament Bay developments. In the case of Canouan, an entire graveyard was allowed to be bulldozed by the developers, desecrating entire family histories and the community’s cultural and spiritual connections with their ancestors. That cemetery was never even given the privilege of religious decommissioning; acts of blatant disrespect for generations of Canouan people and the religious community that was sanctioned by the government of the day. Cemeteries are a key reference point in any community’s history.

At Buccament, the remains of several indigenous settlements were simply bulldozed and piled up on a section of the development site; a tremendous loss of opportunity to study indigenous history. A cursory look at some artefacts by a leading regional expert in archaeology, Petit Jean Roger (Martinique), revealed evidence of settlement on the site by at least three or four different migrations of indigenous peoples. Absolutely no consideration was ever given to the integrity of the petroglyph cave located just yards away; a site that exits on a tentative list by UNESCO for World Heritage Status (http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5749/). The irony of this tragic act is the fact that this history can be an invaluable asset to the very tourism that is the cause of its obliteration. According to community sources on Canouan, the lone petroglyph to have been found on that island was appropriated by the Italian developers and placed within their compound.

The type of tourism we have seen being developed in Canouan and Buccament, and planned for Peter’s Hope and Mt Wynne is referred to in the Tourism Industry as Enclave Tourism. It refers to “a form of development characterized by socio-spatial regulations of host-guest relations and related motilities in tourism. Typically, such developments contain all or a vast majority of facilities and services needed for tourists who have limited possibilities or desires to leave the enclave. Instead they are encouraged to stay and consume inside the self-contained environment. At the same time, locals’ access to the enclave space is often regulated explicitly or implicitly. The enclave segregates tourists from the local community – a form of neo colonization” (Hall and Tucker, 2004).

By the sheer nature of its inherent structure, many tourism experts argue that enclave tourism is unsustainable; that it marginalizes local entrepreneurs; and it widens social, economic and cultural gaps that already exist between tourists and local communities (Telfer and Sharpley, 2008). This form of tourism is more often found in underdeveloped countries – particularly in the Caribbean and Africa – and is dominated by foreign entities. Holiday payments are made in advance somewhere other than the host country and the vast majority of purchases by the establishment to facilitate operations are also expedited outside the host country, resulting in enormous economic leakages. It also reduces locals’ access to beaches for recreation purposes; limits their access to water and electricity; creates difficulties in finding work outside the tourist season; and contributes to social tensions over limited resources (Carlisle, 2010).

Drawing from the experiences of Jamaica (‘Jamaica for Sale’, Vagabond Media, Juneroa Productions, Inc, 2006) and the Dominican Republic (O’Connell and Taylor, 1996), where enclave tourism reign supreme and where tourism benefits to locals are reduced to the selling of trinkets and sex, we need to examine very seriously if this is the direction we want our country to go. We also need to ask ourselves the question: when all of our prime land has been sold and natural resources diminished, what will there be left for future generations of Vincentian people?