Destination St Vincent: Growing Sustainably By Marlon Madden

(BARBADOS TODAY) – (By Marlon Madden) – It is not a destination that readily comes to mind when one thinks about going on a vacation. But officials are working to change that and have promised to do so in a sustainable way.

With many attractive beaches, friendly people and rich heritage, this archipelago of 32 sun-drenched islands and cays match up to other popular destinations including some of its closest neighbours. But what sets destination St Vincent and the Grenadines apart from the rest is its unspoiled environs and rich traditions.

With a population of about 110,000 people, this southern Caribbean island currently welcomes approximately 89,000 visitors annually from around the world, with its major source markets being the US, UK, the Caribbean, and Canada.

St Vincent and the Grenadines not only offer a variety of land and sea-based activities for the traveler seeking a good time, but it is also the ideal destination for the traveler interested in history, nature and a unique adventure or simply in search of a getaway for a leisurely time.

As officials there seek to grow the tourism industry, they are promising to do so in a sustainable way and to ensure that local communities feel the benefits.

Nothing is more evident in this than the activities on several of the islands including the beautiful Union Island and the Tobago Cays.

After a quick 20-minute plane ride from the Argyle International Airport on the mainland, one can visit  Union Island for a tour of the Ashton Lagoon Eco Trail, which is managed by the Sustainable Grenadines Inc. (Susgren).

This lush lagoon, which dates back to the 1980s when it was declared a marine conservation area, came close to being extinct several years ago and was even the centre of controversy at one point after developers moved in to “develop” the area.

But after careful research and planning, the remaining relatively pristine lagoon ecosystem was restored to what it is today and provides a trail for birdwatchers, kayaking, yoga, and swimming. And so far, a number of locals have been qualified in several areas including mangrove restoration and guide training as officials continue to ensure the sustainability of the natural habitat. It attracts over 100 mangrove birds, some of them migratory.

A group of visiting journalists recently descended on the location as part of a destination tour for the 2019 Caribbean Sustainable Tourism Conference (STC).

The location forms a major part of the tourism product for Union Island and the wider St Vincent and the Grenadines. Executive Director of Susgren Orisha Joseph was happy to take the journalists along the trail and inform them of its changes over the years and the plans in store.

“Our vision for the area is sustainable eco-friendly tourism,” said Joseph. “We don’t want it to be high traffic because you have a sensitive ecosystem. So, we want it to be very eco-friendly,” she added.

The Aston lagoon which is still under development welcomed just over 1,000 visitors between January and May this year, and while locals also take the time to enjoy the location, it is visited mostly by tourists. The plan is to make it into an area that accommodates a higher foot traffic, a restaurant, yachting and opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Susgren, which is registered in Grenada and St Vincent and the Grenadines, was formed following a meeting in Barbados in 2000 after the governments agreed that an effort was needed to conserve the area. It was in 2002 that the Susgren project was formed, and in 2010 when funding dried up, it transformed from a mere project to a non-governmental organization.

“Since then we have been involved in a lot of sector-planning workshops,” said Joseph, pointing out that last year they were able to come up with a major plan. A part of that plan, she said, was the identification of several priority areas for the location including zoning, fishing, mariculture, tourism, development, transportation, and conservation.

She explained that constant monitoring and collection of data was taking place to ensure the priority areas were being carried out. The data is broken down and passed on to officials in Grenada and St Vincent and the Grenadines so they can take various management decisions.

Joseph said for the area to be fully developed into an eco-friendly zone that would cater to entrepreneurs and more tourists, officials were looking at a price tag of about US$20 million.

“One of the things we want to do is to not only have Susgren build the area, but have the local community involved. So like farmers’ associations, invite people who already have businesses on the island or in the area and we provide them with the facilities; they pay us to rent and operate here. So you have somebody doing cocktails, you have artists. That is the vision,” she explained.

While the tours of the area are free, visitors are encouraged to leave a small donation that goes towards the area’s upkeep.

The country’s sustainable efforts do not stop there. Operations in several of the islands and cays including Pearl Island and the Tobago Cays, currently run on solar power.

Meanwhile, the main source of water on the beautiful island of Bequia, with a population of about 5,000, comes from the rain. Besides being famous for its turquoise beaches, this approximately seven square mile island also offers several tours, hiking and dive sites. Our tour guide Camille Jacobs was also quick to point out that it was a spot for history lovers.

While it has dwindled over the years, the villagers still carry out a tradition of boat building. But it is fishing that remains the mainstay of this island.

“Most of Bequia is connected to the sea in some way,” said Jacobs.

The island also boasts a recycling plant and several model boat shops as people there try to keep the tradition of boat building alive.

Back on the mainland of St Vincent officials are in the process of searching for geothermal energy that would significantly reduce electricity costs to consumers. Relatively close to the Soufrière volcanic mountain, the exploration is taking place with the drilling of three wells. Exploration began in 2013 as a private sector-led project until one of the companies pulled out and the government stepped in with a significant portion of the funding through a mixture of grant funding and loans.

Thorleifur Finnson is the Managing Director and Head of Project Development with Reykjavík Geothermal Ltd, the company overseeing this project. He told enquiring journalists that the entire project was scheduled to be completed next year, and the wells are being drilled at a depth of about 300 metres and then horizontally to about one kilometre.

“What we are looking for in the heat, of course, 230 degrees Celsius and higher. We are also looking for permeability – water sources. So that means we try to hit some fractions in the ground under the mountain. This is basic for the geothermal production, we need heat and water into the well,” he explained.

“We got heat in well number one, but unfortunately we could not find enough permeability. So now we are hoping to be luckier on well three,” he said.

While several surface surveys have been carried out, it is impossible to say if the project would be successful without actually drilling. The entire project is estimated to cost a total of about US$40 million, exclusive of the building of a power plant should the exploration proved fruitful. It currently employs a number of locals and provides opportunities for vendors in nearby communities. Should the project be successful, it is estimated that some ten megawatts of power could be harvested from the three wells combined.

“That is about 60 per cent of the installed power necessary for the island,” said Finnson. Today, fossil fuels provide about 80 per cent of the country’s electricity use. Finnson, who is excited about the project, said the production of electricity from geothermal sources and a reduction in fossil fuel should result in cheaper electricity costs for consumers and cleaner energy.

He also pointed to other “downstream” benefits from the geothermal source, saying the steam could also be used for vegetable and fruit drying, flower and fish farming and spa uses.

“This is energy that can be extracted through simple separators and can be used by the community,” he said. “So it is estimated that if we are lucky with the wells, we could have power online at the beginning of 2022,” he added.

While the rate of failure for a geothermal exploration was about one or two wells per ten or ten or 20 per cent, Finnson said he remains hopeful.

This year, St Vincent hosted the Caribbean Sustainable Tourism Conference (STC) for the first time, under the theme Keeping the Right Balance – Tourism in an Era of Diversification.

Officials have promised that as they develop destination St Vincent and the Grenadines and vie for a bigger piece of the tourism pie, they would be doing so while avoiding mistakes and making sure to maintain the islands’ unspoiled natural beauty, traditions, and rich cultural heritage.