Ecotourism may be what the untouched isle of Dominica needs to preserve its natural and cultural wealth.By Kate Siber
When Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean island of Dominica in 1493, he found a shoreline so rocky and perilous he refused to land. Years later, European settlers were repelled by the fierce native Caribs, dense rainforests, and impossibly rugged topography. Dominica was one of the last islands in the region to be colonized; Nowadays, it would probably be the only island Columbus would recognize.
On a planet where few natural places remain untouched, this 29-mile-long isle, sandwiched between Martinique and Guadeloupe, is a little-known haven for all things natural. No other country has as much protected land per capita: more than 20 percent of the island is legally set aside as a national park or forest, and nearly two-thirds of it is jungle. Dominica has a mind-boggling number of ecosystems, with almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain and eight live volcanoes—one of the greatest concentrations in the world. A traveler can go from low tropical rainforest to high elfin woodland and see more than 170 species of birds, including the endangered endemic Sisserou and Jacko parrots.
But this infant country, which was peacefully granted independence from the British in 1978, is at a crossroads. Dominica's banana trade, virtually its only industry, collapsed in 2001 after the European Union, under pressure from the United States, stopped subsidizing banana farmers. The number of growers dwindled to fewer than 1,000, from 7,000, and now many Dominicans are looking to the tourist industry to buoy the flailing economy.
Some want to turn the island into the next St. Thomas or St. Croix, which were successfully transformed into international vacation destinations in the 1960s. But with no palm-ensconced white-sand beaches—in fact, scarcely any beaches at all—or luxury hotels, Dominica's path is less obvious. Others advocate an entirely different tourism product, one particularly suited to Dominica's rugged rain-forest setting: ecotourism.
Dominica has hit a critical moment: with a 25 percent unemployment rate and a startling number of emigrants—as many Dominicans live on the island as abroad—the country needs a viable solution fast.
The Tourism Compromise
For some time, Dominica has generated tourism dollars by catering to day visitors from Caribbean cruise ships. While the number of annual overnight visitors to the island, fewer than 70,000, has stayed relatively constant for the past decade, cruise ship arrivals have doubled, to 300,000, in the past eight years. Some Dominicans, including key political figures, would like to attract more cruise-ship day-trippers, and developments catering to them have started to multiply.
In 2003 a private company opened the Rain Forest Aerial Tram, a 90-minute gondola ride that takes passengers two and a half miles into the rain forest to see canopy wildlife. Though the tram is well liked by visitors, many Dominicans opposed its construction. The tram's 19 poles and 22 eight-passenger cars required clearing 41 acres of rain forest. Plans to extend the tram to Boiling Lake were foiled when Morne Trois Pitons National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, limiting future development.
In the past two years, the government completed another project designed for cruise-ship tourists: the construction of a new road to Freshwater Lake, a tourist attraction in the high, cool midsection of the island. This road was controversial because it paved over a swath of rain forest and a flank of the lake to allow for a visitor's center and large tour buses. Environmentalists and ecotourism proponents see the road as a turnoff to potential eco-conscious visitors. Many of the local villagers, however, believe the road will attract tourists—and tourist dollars.
The government's next contentious plan involves constructing a quarter-mile-long berth on Roseau's waterfront to accommodate larger cruise ships.
The Eco-tourism Alternative
The capitol city of Roseau assumes a different character on cruise-ship days. Vendors peddle trinkets, freelance guides offer whirlwind tours, and normally languid café owners jump to accommodate the American and European tourists. Some see this bustle as a sign of prosperity. For others, these days shatter the harmony of the island.
"The cruise ship is not sustainable," says Jeane Finucane, owner of Hummingbird Inn, a small eco-lodge near Roseau. "It's not for an island like Dominica. Everything on that cruise ship is luxury, and we can't do that." Finucane is part of a growing group of conservationists who are trying to promote ecotourism—a form of tourism built on sustainable development that emphasizes the natural beauty of a place—as an alternative to mainstream tourism development. Proponents argue that green tourism could be Dominica's best bet for economic salvation.
Though the island has more than four times as many cruise-ship visitors as overnight visitors, the latter are actually far more lucrative, bringing in three times more cash than the day-trippers. Overnight tourists tend to have higher levels of education and income, according to the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association, and they are more interested in seeing Dominica's natural attractions, such as its pristine reefs and rain forests.
Dominica has unbeatable options for adventure tourism. Morne Trois Pitons National Park, the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Caribbean, has a 31,000-square-foot boiling lake—the world's second largest simmering sulfur pot—5 volcanoes, 50 fumaroles (vents from which volcanic gases escape), three freshwater lakes, and numerous hot springs. On the island's 100 miles of trails, hikers discover cinnamon trees, fresh grapefruit, papaya, bananas, lemongrass, ginger, almonds, and habanero chilis. Divers schlep from across the world to see the Soufriere/Scott's Head Marine Reserve, where a 6,000-foot volcanic crater, sheer 1,500-foot walls, and subaquatic hot springs host parrot fish, frogfish, and sea horses.
"People don't come here for beaches, business, or fancy restaurants," says Jeffery Charles, a guide from the village of Wotton Waven and an avid proponent of Dominica's ecotourism industry. "They come here because it's the last real island in the Caribbean."
The New Colonialism?
Ecotourism is a new movement and a hard sell—many Dominicans see it as an import from the white north and remain skeptical it could have any advantages.
"The argument is that environmentalism is a bunch of white people who want us to remain underdeveloped so they can keep these places as parks to vacation in," says Henry Shillingford, a New York-raised Dominican environmental attorney and former program director of the Dominica Conservation Association. Shillingford recently secured more than $300,000 from the European Union to initiate cultural and natural heritage preservation programs. His projects help bring tourists into the island's native Carib community—the largest remaining enclave of aboriginal inhabitants in the Caribbean—to learn about traditional building techniques, dances, and cuisine; hold sustainable agriculture seminars; and preserve Roseau's historic downtown buildings and gardens.
"My argument is that the environment is our heritage. We're not importing anything from the north. We don't have to create Disneylands here. We just have to remind Dominica of what it is."
Shillingford's projects are oriented around tourism, but he is aiming to preserve Dominica for Dominicans. "The basic justification for anything in the Caribbean is tourim. You have to spin everything you do around it," says Shillingford. "But on another level you want to do things that are wider than just for tourists."
For ecotourism operators, supporting and preserving local communities—in addition to providing ecologically sound accommodations and guest services—is an essential part of sustainability.
Jem Winston, a British expatriate and resort owner on Dominica, opened 3 Rivers Eco Lodge in 2002 and now employs nine people from the local village of Grand Fond to run his facility. He organizes activities for guests, such as visits to vegetable farms to learn about the country's edible tubers, including dasheen and arrowroot, or to organic herb farms to taste bush teas and concoct medicinal remedies. All proceeds from the excursions go directly to the farmers, whom Winston figures will in turn support his efforts at 3 Rivers.
Winston fell in love with Dominica while backpacking there in the 1990s. For seven years he drove a taxi around London to save enough money to buy his 22-acre property, a former banana plantation, which was abandoned after the market crash. Now, three years later, he has developed an ecotourist's utopia. 3 Rivers operates entirely off the grid, on a small squadron of solar panels, and all of its water is warmed by individual solar heaters that Winston built himself. He grows much of his organic food on the premises or buys it locally, and runs his truck on vegetable oil.
But Winston insists that he is simply doing his part to maintain his business and preserve the place he loves. His real eco-project? The Sustainable Living Initiative Center (SLIC). With funding from the United Nations Development Programme and the British High Commission in Barbados, this wiry 36-year-old has started to hold how-to classes on vegetable-oil fuel, homemade hot-water heaters, and hydroelectricity, which both locals and American college students have attended. By 2007 Winston will have built a 50-bed, four-classroom facility on his property for SLIC's visiting students, and eventually courses will include everything from organic pest control to construction of composting toilets.
Winston's most groundbreaking idea, however, is the revolving loan fund. After educating a few people from every village on how green technology can save money (and help preserve the land), Winston dispatches them back to their village as teachers. In turn, the revolving fund lends villagers interest-free money to buy goods to build their own green technology—say, a solar water heater. As the villagers save money on energy bills, they return it to the fund to be lent to others.
"We're not just showing them what's possible," says Winston. "We're showing them how to do it on the cheap. And the whole idea is they've got to do it themselves. We're not doing it for them."
Six eco-lodges on the island, including Winston's, have been recognized for their environmental efforts by Green Globe 21, an industry association based in Australia that gives environmental accreditation to tourism companies worldwide. Dominica itself has also been recognized, and it is the first country to receive such a distinction.
The Way Forward
Dominica will soon find out whether or not ecotourism can work on a larger scale. This year saw the opening of an $8 million luxury ecoresort on the pristine southeastern end of the island: Jungle Bay.
This secluded, all-inclusive resort has a 3,200-square-foot yoga studio with hardwood floors, a spa with five ocean-facing treatment rooms, two open-air restaurants serving gourmet organic and local cuisine, a saltwater pool, and a beachside bar. Unlike many upscale resorts, Jungle Bay was built with sustainability in mind. Lumber cleared for construction was recycled into furniture; structures have been built around plants; and lights are outfitted with low-watt bulbs, even though the resort aims to be off the grid within five years. Jungle Bay recruits locally, paying employees well above the average Dominican wage, and runs an organic-food growing program in which local farmers are commissioned to grow and sell organic produce to the resort at fair prices.
A luxury hotel like Jungle Bay, which opened in March, could be the way to attract the tourists—affluent, educated, wellness-oriented, socially conscious tourists—Dominica desperately needs to both preserve its environment and survive economically.
Jungle Bay owner and developer Sam Raphael would like the resort to act as a model for future sustainable development on the island. "We do have our challenges," says Raphael. "I wouldn't want to suggest that everything is perfect here. But the people of Dominica emotionally have an attachment to the environment, and I think there is a consensus in the tourism industry that ecotourism is the direction we need to go."
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