As premier of my state, you will pardon me, I hope, if I appear not too anxious to grab the easiest dollar. The tourist dollar alone, unrestricted, is not worth the devastation of my people. A country where the people have lost their soul is no longer a country—and not worth visiting.
St. Vincent's JAMES F. MITCHELL
Many another Caribbean island has gone this way before, so the signs are easy enough to read: St. Vincent is at the crossroads. For now it is essentially unknown, a sultry place where stilted huts cling to hillsides and street urchins do the same to the few foreigners they see, pleading: "Just 5¢, Skipper." But one can imagine a tourist boom sending those demands to 10¢ or even a quarter. St. Vincent, after all, offers such marketable tourist goods as tropical sunsets and an uncommonly full line of beaches. While its own are of black volcanic sand seemingly touched by evil, those in the Grenadines, tiny dependencies strewn below St. Vincent, are of the ever-popular Shimmering, Palm-fringed, Talcum-white variety.
But St. Vincent makes available only a few of the Caribbean's other tourist specialties. The Ruby Rich Wine Valley Harps Steel Band serenades the cruise ships that occasionally call, and guests at the island's small hotels need hardly worry about the supply of rum punch running out, but St. Vincent has no duty-free shops, Olympic-size pools or gala calypso revues, and even the official tourist guide concedes that night life is "somewhat limited." There are no casinos, either, leaving visitors to gamble instead on whether LIAT (Leeward Islands Air Transport), the local airline, will cancel yet another flight, an annoyance so common that wags claim LIAT really stands for "Leave Islands Any Time."
Such hardships make St. Vincent seem a world apart even from its West Indian neighbors. One of the Windwards, which in turn are among the least of the Lesser Antilles, St. Vincent lies seven-eighths of the way along the archipelago that curves like a connect-the-dots puzzle from Florida to Venezuela. The Grenadines stretch for 70 miles farther south to Grenada, which governs the closest of these volcanic outcroppings, leaving those to the north under St. Vincent. Where St. Vincent is lush, with streams rushing down from mountainsides, the Grenadines are sere. Few are inhabited, and the fishermen who dwell on them refer to St. Vincent, itself just 18 miles long, as "the mainland."
Partly because of their isolation, but also because they lie in storied sailing waters, it is the Grenadines that hold the most appeal for outsiders. St. Vincent attracted only 28,000 visitors last year (vs. the 1½ million who descended on the Bahamas), and for many of them the island was merely a blur on the way to the Grenadines. Arriving in the Vincentian capital of Kingstown, a scruffy little seaport of red roofs and cobbled streets, they immediately boarded waiting craft like the 72-foot ketch Ticonderoga, a champion ocean racer of yesteryear that now takes charter parties to idyllic swimming and snorkeling grounds.
Despite its seclusion, change has come to St. Vincent, a process sure to accelerate once the island's new TV booster tower begins relaying programs from Barbados and Trinidad. The women at Kingstown's Saturday morning native market still balance baskets on their heads, but their erect posture is lost on the teen-agers who slump against nearby buildings, listening to rock on cheap cassette players. In another sign of the times the St. Vincent Planters Association recently became the St. Vincent Farmers Association, a move that members like Cyril Barnard hope will erase the lingering stigma of British colonialism, which formally ended when St. Vincent became a self-governing "associated state" in 1969.
The silver-haired Barnard is understandably sensitive to the social stirrings. St. Vincent's 95,000 citizens are mostly black, brown or café au lait but Barnard is white. The annual per capita income is just $225, yet he owns a 3,000-acre coconut estate, or as one awed neighbor puts it, "Mr. Cyril has plenty lands, mon." Barnard also raises and races thoroughbreds at several locations in the West Indies, maintaining the smallest possible breeding operation—one stallion, one mare—on St. Vincent. But there is land reform in St. Vincent now, and taxes in the upper brackets are such that even Cyril Barnard professes to feel a pinch. "It's a struggle to run an operation like this," he complained one afternoon, relaxing on the veranda of his hilltop home. "It doesn't do to be a landowner. You're only there to be attacked by politicians and everyone else." Servants padded around the rambling house, but the bedroom of Barnard's 18-year-old son Michael was decorated, incongruously, with a large Che Guevara poster. "Michael's at that age," the elder Barnard said.
Despite the premium paid for unspoiled tourist hideaways, St. Vincent has been slow to cash in—which is exactly why it remains an unspoiled tourist hideaway. While neighboring islands all but sink under the weight of towering oceanfront hotels, St. Vincent and the Grenadines have only one building with as many as four stories and the country's 408 guest rooms are fewer than those found in one medium-sized San Juan hotel. Only last year were laws enacted providing for condominiums, while negotiations to crown a pretty cove on St. Vincent's western coast with a 70-room Holiday Inn drag on. There was no place to hit a golf ball until the opening this year of a nine-hole course in a blossom-laden valley dominated by an old stone aqueduct.
A certain ambivalence about his country's tourist policy is evident on the part of Premier James F. Mitchell, a meditative man of 42 who is said to do his heaviest thinking while walking barefoot along empty beaches. Last September Mitchell put on shoes long enough to address a regional travel conference in Haiti. He made it clear that he welcomed tourism, yet he avoided the usual tourist rhetoric about tropical paradises. Deeming it inappropriate to talk of trade winds whispering on islands where poverty shouts, Mitchell defined his government's policy as, simply, "development of our people while giving good value.
"One myth that needs to be exploded is the idea of the Caribbean paradise," he said. "There is no paradise, only different ways of life. The North American trying to escape a big-city problem like air pollution may not recognize the West Indian's problem of lack of opportunity in a small island—but it is a problem just the same." Mitchell said that St. Vincent would concentrate on small numbers of tourists "whose idea of a holiday is not heaven but participation in a different experience." He resorted to one bit of rhetoric himself, and that was the title of his speech: To Hell with Paradise.
Churchill is gone and Ralph Nader shuns high office, so let us take our statesmanlike utterances where we find them. James Mitchell is an Othello-like figure with a full beard, sloping forehead and the caramel coloring of his mixed Scotch-French-African ancestry. Educated in Canada, he was formerly tourism minister and owns a small hotel on his native Bequia, northernmost of the Grenadines. His father was captain of a tri-masted schooner lost at sea many years ago, and Mitchell sails his own 28-foot sloop Colibri.
Mitchell wants to avoid the fate of Caribbean neighbors that have ridden the tiger of tourism only to wind up being devoured by it. He articulates priorities that larger islands belatedly embraced, broadening tourism to include the young, the budget-conscious and the ecology-minded. He rejects what Herbert L. Hiller, executive director of the Caribbean Travel Association, frankly calls "the high fantasy content" of Caribbean tourism. "The old mode is mass tourism," Hiller says. "It reflects standards set in Miami Beach, meaning high technology and imported management, materials and values. Men like James Mitchell now want tourism with a higher Caribbean content. They want Caribbean cuisine, architecture and culture."
The situation that Mitchell is determined to avoid is evident everywhere in the West Indies that super-luxury hotels have gone up. Many hotels, encumbered by huge investments, neglected to train their staffs properly and abruptly discharged employees at season's end. In addition they charged rates so high that publishers of The Caribbean on $5 and $10 a Day finally dropped the book because, a spokesman explains, "It kept getting thinner every year." Mass tourism brought prosperity, but with it such undesired side effects as soaring land prices that killed off agriculture. Mass tourism also helped create the very problems vacationers hoped to escape, such as polluted beaches in Puerto Rico and traffic jams on St. Thomas.
Charging that those chiefly prospering from all this were foreign hotel owners, West Indian black power militants found it easy to equate tourism with neocolonialism. And certainly natives feel they have sometimes been treated as second-class citizens. When tourists tried to photograph young Trinidadians making sandals on a street in Port-of-Spain, one youth protested: "What if I burst into your home and took a picture of you on the toilet?" A waiter in the Bahamas I says, "If tourists stopped snapping their fingers and calling us boy, they'd be surprised how nice we can be."
But some native unpleasantness seems gratuitous. Subjected without apparent provocation to treatment ranging from ill-mannered to hostile, many Caribbean visitors go home vowing never to return. Tourism has declined in the U.S. Virgin Islands in part because of the kind of attitude displayed by the police officer who ordered a woman visitor to move the parked car in which she was waiting for her husband. When she complied, he arrested her for driving without a license. The officer was black, the tourist white, but race is not the only source of friction. Bellhops in Haiti refer to black American tourists as les blancs noirs—white black men.
These tensions were aggravated last September when eight people, four of them white American tourists, were shot to death on a Rockefeller-owned golf course on St. Croix. One can dismiss this violence as an aberration, and perhaps reach the same conclusion about the mini-buses now doing a brisk trade carrying other tourists to view the murder scene. Still, the bad publicity came at a lime when the Caribbean was already facing stiff competition both from cheap European charter flights and a Florida tourist revival spurred by the success of Disney World.
Caribbean tourism also suffers randomly from hurricanes, polio scares and, above all, the vicissitudes of the U.S. economy. In Puerto Rico, whose $250-million-a-year tourist industry has not yet recovered from a slump that began with the U.S. recession of 1970, Tourist Director Roberto Bouret warns that the island's struggling luxury hotels "must improve service in line with their rates." It is no coincidence that the islands now enjoying the biggest tourist surges include Haiti, Martinique and Barbados, each of which specializes in smaller, personalized hotels. The lesson is not lost on the government of Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, which recently closed the Holiday Inn on Montego Bay for two weeks because of indifferent service. Where Caribbean politicians once made a whipping boy of tourism, Manley has told his people, "The tourist is innocent of responsibility for your problems. Don't blame the visitor, blame me." Similarly, posters in Barbados proclaim: TOURISM NEEDS YOU, YOU NEED TOURISM.
Tourist-related friction, like tourism itself, is much less pronounced on St. Vincent. Whites might be greeted with cries of "Honky" if they venture into Kingstown's tough Pauls Lot neighborhood, and there is a certain coolness about Stanley (The Dodger) Gibson, who stood one morning on Kingstown's wharf as passengers filed off a cruise ship to shop for straw goods. "These tourists can humbug you, mon," he complained. "You don't know who is a CIA agent." Then he chuckled, adding, "But it doesn't matter. We've nothing to hide."
The fact is that most Vincentians are friendly and open to outsiders, plainly pleased that anyone would visit their neglected island. This right away puts the modern visitor ahead of Columbus, who is credited with having sighted St. Vincent in 1498, an event diminished only by the fact that he did not bother to stop. Nor did St. Vincent escape obscurity when, after Britain wrested the island from the French and the Carib Indians, local sugar planters ordered a boatload of breadfruit from Tahiti to feed their African slaves. The subsequent adventures of H.M.S. Bounty have been recounted often enough, but few could tell you that the ship was bound for St. Vincent when its crew mutinied or that Captain Bligh completed his mission, sailing into Kingstown Harbor in another vessel in 1793.
Some, including St. Vincent's handful of Marxists, would just as soon see Yanquis and other tourists stay home. And there is an extraparliamentary group called the Educational Forum whose members are mostly college-educated. Echoing the "tourism is whorism" cry heard throughout the West Indies, Forum's literature interprets tourist brochure references to the "virgin beauty" of Caribbean islands as symbolic invitations "to be the first to ravish their virginity." But Forum leader Kenneth John, a barrister, admits this argument was "deliberately overplayed," adding, "We are a poor country and must have some tourism." This is much the line that James Mitchell takes. "St. Vincent needs tourism, but we must deal in realities," he said recently. "That's why it's wrong to talk of paradise. It's an image that can only disappoint; tourists come and find roads potholed or they find poverty and ignorance. It's the same with yachtsmen. We're not going to control the tides. Some days it might be rainy or rough." He laughed. "But in these islands you do have a better run for your money.
"We mustn't become overdependent on tourism. We want balanced tourism. This means serving homegrown vegetables and lobster caught the same day instead of imported caviar and steak. This will preserve our agriculture and keep tourist revenues from going out for imported food. It's what visitors want, too. They want to see things indigenous to the islands, like cultivated fields and the fishing boats leaving."
The unregimented, unpackaged tourism that Mitchell envisions would be pretty much an expanded version of what St. Vincent already has. There is a casual, nicely unpolished quality about a St. Vincent vacation today. The feeling begins even on the flight from Barbados aboard a groaning LIAT propjet staffed by stewardesses in clinging, early Supremes mini-dresses. Soon St. Vincent rises from the sea, its peaks lost in cloud.
Curiously, the runway below is intersected by a road carrying British-made autos and crowded buses with such puckish names as "Come to Me, Baby" or "Ride On." Another bus is called "Never Late," but this vow will surely be broken: the plane is landing and vehicular traffic must wait.
The propjet deposits its passengers at the airport, where a sign says that the local Rotary Club meets Thursdays it 12:15 p.m. at Kingstown's Blue Caribbean Hotel. The customs inspection consists of no more than a gold-toothed smile, and the scene soon shifts to the inside of a taxicab winding through high greenery affording glimpses of the Caribbean below. Hugh Tyrrell, the driver, turns to the back seat.
"Welcome to St. Vincent," he says. "What we offer is nature's blessings and the love of the people." Tyrrell's words, though practiced, soothe. Most strangers to St. Vincent, after all, hail from distant cities like New York or Toronto, where nature's blessings have long since been obliterated by foul air and concrete. The latest word from these places is that one cannot always count on the love of the people, either.
Tyrrell's island delivers much of what he promises. He or any of Kingstown's other eager taxi drivers will gladly show the visitor St. Vincent's own Mesopotamia Valley, whose steep crayon-green slopes are planted mostly in bananas, a crop accounting for 80% of the island's exports. Or they will drive along bumpy roads to the small fishing settlement of Barrouallie, where youths drowse under banyan trees and others play cricket on the dusty village square. Or take you to Sandy Bay, whose trusting inhabitants thought it an act of God when drums containing what appeared to be Jack Iron rum, a potent native drink, washed ashore three years ago. The drums actually contained industrial alcohol from a shipwrecked schooner, and the two dozen people who died in the ensuing binge included a 6-year-old girl. A bitter joke has it that the survivors would gladly drink the stuff again.
Another of St. Vincent's attractions is Mount Soufriere, a 4,048-foot volcano on the island's north end. One reaches Soufriere by Land Rover, then hikes along a trail that twists upward through creaking bamboo to a crater sheltering a still, green lake. The 90-minute climb is less than Himalayan but derives an extra element of sport from the fact that the volcano is semiactive; it erupted in 1902 at a loss of 2,000 lives and belched up an island of ash in the lake just 18 months ago.
There is something unobtrusive even about St. Vincent's hotels, small, come-as-you-are places where the absence of such amenities as phones or TV in guest rooms is seldom mourned. The best are three American-run resorts, each offering two dozen guest cottages on its own island. They are (with wintertime rates for two, meals included):
1) Young Island ($68 a day), which lies 200 yards off St. Vincent, its thatched roofs camouflaged by hibiscus, oleander and palms. Owner John Houser, an ex-Hilton executive, is partial to bananas, which turn up in bread, fritters, cream pie, salads and, of course, daiquiris. The staff aims to please, with the result, paradoxically, that if a trade wind snuffs out the candle on your dinner table, you may have to relight it yourself; the waiters could be too busy serenading you with Island in the Sun.
2) Palm Island ($60), a cabana-style beach resort in the Grenadines with daily LIAT service on its own airstrip. The owner is John Caldwell, a feisty Texan who was shipwrecked while singlehandedly sailing the Pacific, an adventure described in his book Desperate Voyage. Later, as a charter captain in the Grenadines, Caldwell made like a tropical Johnny Appleseed, planting coconut palms on scrubby Prune Island, which he renamed Palm Island after leasing it for $1 a year in local currency—or 53¢ U.S. Mitchell now wants to renegotiate the lease, and he pointedly calls the resort Prune Island. Caldwell says defiantly, "The word prune stands for something ugly and wrinkled."
3) Petit St. Vincent ($100), most remote of the St. Vincent-ruled Grenadines. It is linked to the outside world by its own 35-foot launch, which meets guests at the Palm Island airstrip half an hour away. Owned by Kentucky harness horseman H. Willis Nichols Jr., the island is designed for privacy. The handsome cottages are so widely scattered through dun-colored hills and along empty beaches that getting around at night is a job for Eveready: guests are issued flashlights on arrival. Room service orders go into mailboxes outside each cottage and are collected every half hour or so by car. Petit St. Vincent advertises in The New Yorker and Modern Bride.
Besides the one at Palm Island, there is an airstrip on Mustique, a Grenadine island being developed mainly for retirement homes. Its residents, mostly British, are condemned to look out on the charred hulk of the French cruise ship Antilles, which ran aground in 1971. This example notwithstanding, it is by boat, not plane, that one best gets to know the Grenadines. Passengers are welcome on a twice weekly mail schooner and there is competition in the Grenadines, as elsewhere, between crewed charter boats and bareboats.
The rivalry parallels that between chauffeured limousines and Hertz. At Caribbean Sailing Yachts, whose marina outside Kingstown charters bareboats from 34 to 41 feet, the pitch is that sailors qualified to handle a boat themselves pay less, follow their own itineraries and avoid personality clashes with quirky captains. "That's why we handpick our captains," says Judy Kwaloff, an agent for crewed charter boats in the Grenadines. Kwaloff puts vacationers who prefer leaving the driving to somebody else aboard the likes of the 53-foot Luna Quest, whose skipper, Stan Young, goes to great lengths to ingratiate. "I'd serve you dinosaur eggs on toast today," Young will say, bobbing at anchor off some deserted beach. "Unfortunately, we're out of bread."
The most popular anchorage in the Grenadines is the Tobago Cays, four uninhabited islets surrounded by miles of coral teeming with marine life, a gaudy environment easily transformed, with mask and flipper, into a vast aquarium. For those who find snorkeling lame, and this includes every last scuba diver, the Grenadines abound in sponge reefs, underwater cliffs and at least one worthwhile wreck, a World War I gunboat aslumber in seven fathoms off the island of Mayreau. Hugh Ettles, an ex-Toronto adman who runs a scuba shop in St. Vincent's Mariner's Inn, exudes, "It's 73° at 50 feet in these waters. And there's visibility at 100 feet, where the big fish are."
The center of this waterborne activity is Bequia, whose forested hills are dotted with stucco houses built with wages earned aboard English banana boats and Japanese tankers. Two-thirds of Bequia's men go to sea while those who remain fish or build schooners from native cedar. Bequia also is one of the last places where whales are hunted with hand-held harpoons, although the market for oil is erratic and only three humpbacks were taken all last year. So it was that when the whalers gathered one Sunday for the traditional blessing of the fleet, the island's Anglican priest sprinkled holy water on just two 26-foot double-enders, all that remained of the two dozen or more that once flourished there. On hand was Premier Mitchell, who stood with the priest, the curve of the beach at his back, joining in the hymn:
"O, hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea."
Mitchell spends weekends on Bequia relaxing aboard Colibri, which he anchors in Admiralty Bay in front of his Frangipani Hotel, a cheerful little guesthouse of 10 rooms. On weekdays, commanding the ship of state, he lives on St. Vincent, leaving his Canadian-born wife Pat to run the Frangipani. Of this arrangement Mitchell says, "The government and hotel are doing fine, but the family feels the pressure of both."
But some would challenge Mitchell's assessment of how the government is doing. Politics is a heartfelt matter in St. Vincent, the tenor of civic discourse being such that when the volcano erupted in 1971 opponents of the government made the absurd charge that it had diabolically seeded the crater with chemicals. Mitchell belonged to the ruling Labor Party until he resigned early last year. Neither of St. Vincent's parties could form a government after that, leaving Mitchell with the balance of power. This he craftily used by consenting to a coalition with the rival People's Political Party in return for the premiership.
Mitchell belongs today to neither party, assuring him the enmity of both. His tourist policy is unavoidably a political issue. Last year a British research team urged a five-fold increase in St. Vincent's tourism in the next decade, with the main thrust recommended for the Grenadine island of Canouan. The report also called for modernizing St. Vincent's airport, where tricky crosswinds are to blame for many of LIAT's canceled flights. Mitchell generally accepts these recommendations but wants them implemented "in partnership with local investors." What local money there is, however, has not been forthcoming, prompting him to charge that it is largely in the hands of rivals determined to embarrass him. To this Hudson Tannis, an opposition leader, replies: "It's simply that people don't trust the government enough to risk their capital."
As the political maneuvering goes on, it matters little that most outsiders might identify St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a rock group. The task ahead, that of selling St. Vincent without despoiling it, is a delicate one. With the Caribbean alternately subjected to the sunshine of tourist promoters and the thunder of militants, there is an aspect of cautious realism about even so obvious a civic booster as Kingstown merchant Dennis Frank, who also is chairman of the St. Vincent Tourist Board.
"Tourism is growing slowly here, but maybe it's just as well," Frank said not long ago. "That way we can pick and choose exactly the kind of tourism we want. We can sell our country the way it is." In his office tourist literature was arranged in help-yourself stacks. One brochure called St. Vincent and the Grenadines by a name that somebody on the Tourist Board once dreamed up in a modest attempt at phrase making. James Mitchell might disapprove. The brochure welcomed visitors to "A Paradise of Islands."
Petit St. Vincent
A pretty cove is the site of a proposed 70-room Holiday Inn, which would raise the total number of rooms on St. Vincent to 478
The wreck of the "Antilles," which went aground in 1971, lies off Grenadine islet of Mustique.
This magnificent hilltop home belongs to Mustique land developer Arne Hasselqvist.
Bananas, St. Vincent's No. 1 crop, are borne to the native market in Kingstown.
Kingstown (pop. 16,000), whose mail often winds up in Kingston, Jamaica, is capital of St. Vincent.
Yachts ride at anchor in Admiralty Bay in Bequia, Premier Mitchell's home in the Grenadines.