Dominica: The world's leading eco-tourism destination?
By Sir Ronald Sanders
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Thursday May 5, 2011 - Of the 249 places in the world in which human beings live and work, the small Caribbean island of Dominica (751 sq km) ranks at 187 in size.
Even so, it is bigger than well-known Caribbean tourism destinations such as St Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Cayman Islands, St Kitts-Nevis, British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, and St Marten.
Two reasons account for Dominica being left behind by neighbouring Caribbean islands in the development of tourism. The first is that it has no white, sandy beaches - the iconic symbol of “Caribbean tourism”; and, second, it doesn’t have an international airport. It is served by small aircraft operated by American Eagle from Puerto Rico, and LIAT for inter-island transportation.
Nonetheless, the island is a veritable garden of trees, plants, and colourful flowers. Much of it is luxuriant rain forest, majestic in its spread over mountain ranges and into lush valleys. The entire terrain is adorned by gushing waterfalls; narrow, flowing rivers and hot sulphur springs. Not surprisingly, it is home to hundreds of species of birds. Private operators in Dominica have also developed a vibrant whale-watching industry, taking advantage of the country’s marine life, and providing an added attraction for its visitors. The island, therefore, is as an eco-tourism paradise.
“Eco-tourism is the star that shines brightly in Dominica’s economic sky.” --Sir Ronald Sanders
In an effort to expand the tourism plant on the island, the government has considered borrowing US$60 million from the Export-Import Bank of China. The loan would amount to 16 per cent of GDP and, if it is consummated, Dominica would not achieve the debt to GDP ratio of 60 per cent which the IMF considers desirable. For the time being, this potential borrowing from China is on hold unless a private sector partner can be identified.
But, millions of dollars have already been ploughed into spectacularly natural eco-tourism resorts in Dominica by dedicated private investors, and there could be even more financiers if the country’s future as a desirable eco-tourism destination had a greater level of confidence than now exists.
Dominica is agriculturally well-endowed. But that endowment is in the ground and doesn’t translate itself into income and employment. The island’s last viable agricultural product, bananas, was dealt a mortal blow by a combined US-Latin America challenge at the World Trade Organization to its traditional preferential market in the European Union. A once vibrant small farmer community of some 9,000 persons has been reduced to about 500.
Still, Dominica has the capacity to supply neighbouring Caribbean islands with fresh fruit and vegetables in abundance if it can overcome two constraints: no regular and scheduled refrigerated-transportation; and high quality packaging that satisfies the requirements of the tourist markets in these islands. Both are a tall order, and beyond the resources of the Dominica government alone.
Therefore, eco-tourism is the star that shines brightly in Dominica’s economic sky. It could guide the country to a prosperous future, but this will depend substantially on the ecological policies that any government of the country pursues.
Among those policies should be a serious and unshakeable commitment to maintaining Dominica as an environmentally friendly island. This means any government there will have to adopt and maintain international best practices with regard to the island’s maritime and land resources, creating both as sanctuaries.
It will also have to instill in its young people, from kindergarten to tertiary education, that a foremost value of Dominican society and culture must be the protection and preservation of the environment.
Already the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) - an influential conservation organisation with a global outreach - is working with the Ministry of Education in a very popular “Floating Classroom” project in which fifth graders study the ocean as an integrated part of their school curriculum. The project combines cross disciplinary classroom study, hands-on learning during an ocean excursion, and a student-led conservation initiative. Children who undertake the programme have become the custodians of their heritage in the sea, and are strong advocates of conservation, showing their elders the benefits of protecting and preserving their natural environment.
It is also in Dominica’s national interest for the government to assert itself as a Champion of the environment in the international community. In return, Dominica would earn the respect of the world’s environmental and conservation organizations, and the support of their millions of members worldwide.
As an example, after the Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, moved his government away from supporting Japan’s continuing determination to overturn rules at the International Whaling Commission so as to legitimize killing of hundreds of whales, including endangered species, Greenpeace – another major international conservation organization with regional offices in 48 countries – told its millions of supporters: “If you are going to spend your hard-earned cash on a vacation to a Caribbean island, why not make it to one that has made the commitment to ending whaling.”
That is a mighty message, one that has already brought many new Eco-tourists to Dominica and could bring thousands more every year, particularly if the call is repeated by every major conservation organisation in the world. Such support is possible if Dominica demonstrates that in all aspects of conservation it will be amongst the first countries to stand-up. Undoubtedly there would be a coalition of international groups ready to reward the Dominican people by putting their millions of members behind them.
If only a small percentage of the worldwide supporters of conservation and environmental groups said ‘Yes to Dominica” for their vacations, its tourism would boom and contribute substantially to the country’s GDP and to employment and foreign exchange earnings.
The demand for seats into Dominica would encourage large airlines to allocate much more space to the island on their flights into Caribbean hubs such as Antigua, Barbados, Guadeloupe and Martinique. In light of the money that could be made, feeder carriers, such as LIAT, might then be ready to schedule pick-up fights from the hubs into Dominica.
The potential for sustainable economic growth, led by eco-tourism, is great. Dominica could become the world’s leading eco-tourism destination. Sustainable environmental policies by its government and strategic alliances with global environmental bodies could take it there.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sir Ronald Sanders. Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.
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