With 32 idyllic islands and cays, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a tropical paradise that has remained relatively unscathed by mass tourism and commercial development.
That’s largely due to the fact that, for years, it was a chore just getting there.
Save for privileged cruise crowds, visitors to the sun-kissed, off-the-beaten-path islands would typically fly first to Barbados and then transfer to St. Vincent, or a neighbouring island, on a small regional carrier.
The exclusively and pure escapism of it all certainly had romantic appeal – the islands, over time, maintained a steady flow of repeat visitors who’d fallen head-over-heels for the destination’s soft white and black beaches, divine diving, snorkeling and sailing scenes and crystal-clear, turquoise-tinted waters.
“Once upon a time, we were the best kept secret,” says Kathique Haynes, marketing officer for North America at the Saint Vincent Tourism Authority.
The destination’s tourism board is humming a different tune nowadays, however, as visitor numbers climb due to the country’s newest gateway – Argyle International Airport (AIA), which opened in February 2017.
The airport replaced St. Vincent’s ET Joshua airport, which had served St. Vincent for decades, and could only receive smaller airplanes.
The newly-opened facility – one of the largest projects in the country’s history – marks a new chapter for the islands as it allows St. Vincent, for the first time ever, to receive wide-bodied international jets thanks to a 9,000-foot runway and other modernized amenities.
In other words, it’s a major game-changer, giving sun-seeking tourists in major markets, such as United States, Canada and Europe, direct access to a melange of beautiful islands that were previously somewhat awkward to get to.
The statistics speak for themselves. According to the latest figures released by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), St. Vincent and the Grenadines saw 36,057 stop-over arrivals between January and May this year, representing a 7.4 per cent increase.
Canada is a leading contributor to that figure: Air Canada Rouge, for one, launched direct service to Argyle airport in December 2017, a non-stop route that was eventually offered (and still is available) year-around out of Toronto.
The CTO reports that between January and May this year, 4,826 Canadians visited St. Vincent and the Grenadines, representing a 16.9 per cent increase.
Canada, it should be noted, is one of few major markets outside of the Caribbean that have direct access to St. Vincent. Many visitors from the U.S. and Europe (and Canada, still) must connect through Barbados or a neighbouring island (depending on the airline).
The country’s cruise market is also on the rise: during that same winter/spring period, the region welcomed 158,233 passengers, up from 147,878 in the previous year.
From a business standpoint, this is all good news. After all, what island wouldn’t want more visitors boosting its local economies?
Tourism officials say that, in the past, they had to chase investors. But now, investors are chasing them.
But St. Vincent and the Grenadines (often short-formed simply to SVG) isn’t rushing to open the tourism flood gates just yet.
While an increase in lift and visitors is encouraging, the country is taking its growth spurt in stride, ensuring its communities, natural resources and tourism products are accounted for, first and foremost.
“We’re not looking at a mass tourism market,” Glen Beache, chief executive officer of the SVG Tourism Authority, said Monday (Aug 26).
Beache made his remarks ahead of this year’s Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development, an annual symposium organized by the CTO that highlights how Caribbean destinations are managed and marketed, while spotlighting sustainability plans concerning the environment, waste reduction and local communities.
The theme of this year’s event, held at the Beachcombers Hotel in St. Vincent from Aug. 26th-30th, is “Keeping the Right Balance: Tourism Development in an Era of Diversification.”
Learning from past mistakes
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as a tourist destination, “is still new,” Beache said, a unique position that puts his team at a significant advantage as far as planning for a sustainable future is concerned.
“The good thing about being new is that we get to learn from the mistakes that some of our friends and neighbours have made within the industry,” Beache said, referring to other Caribbean Islands that have, for lack of better words, overdeveloped their tourism offerings.
Beache refused to name names, but called it a “problem” for some islands that struggle with reinventing themselves.
“I think a lot of times, we get caught up so quickly with what’s the new ‘in thing,’” Beache said, alluding to travel trends, such as wellness retreats and religious group tours. “We tend to forget what we went through in the past, and we don’t look at it well enough.”
Beache expressed how the Caribbean, at one point, was simply known for its warm sunshine and beautiful beaches, and that alone was enough to compete in the travel marketplace.
However, in today’s competitive climate, Caribbean islands “don’t have to be good, we have to be excellent,” he said.
“I think a lot of us took our product for granted because we had that certain beauty,” Beache said.
With that in mind, Beache and his team are being “careful in terms of where we put our resources” as its product gains popularity, ensuring their islands offer unique experiences that are special, accessible and, most importantly, sustainable.
Environmental protection, community tourism, and ensuring locals “feel the effect of the tourism dollar,” is key to this strategy, he said.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is “something that we hope is around for our kids, grandkids, great-grandkids,” Beache said. “We want to make sure that it’s not just about the quantity, but the quality, [and] most of all, making sure that not only visitors enjoy what we have to offer, but [also] locals.”
For tourism to work, locals “have to feel as if they’re part of the product,” he said.
Home to more than 109,800 inhabitants, St. Vincent and the Grenadines lies 24 miles south of St. Lucia and 75 miles north of Grenada.
Citizens are called Vincentians, but are also referred to as Vincy or Vincies.
St. Vincent (which is home to an active volcano, La Soufrière), is the main territory, and many of the Grenadine islands, which extend 45 miles southwest from the main island, are inhabited: Bequia, Mustique, Union Island, Canouan, Palm Island, Mayreau, Young Island, for example.
Other islands are uninhabited by humans (such as the eco-protected Tobago Cays, an archipelago of five smaller islands with spectacular coral reefs), but are home to precious wildlife, such as turtles, geckos, iguanas, topical fish and more than 150 species of birds.
These can be ideal spots to dock a boat (or luxury yacht) for a picnic, hike, or moment to wade in the region’s warm, Windex-blue waters.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines “has different colours of blues and greens...” Jacqui English Jacobs, digital marketing officer at the SVG Tourism Authority, told PAX. “It’s very inviting.”
And tourism officials would like to keep it that way, even if their new airport presents new challenges.
“Yes, the airport has caused a shift,” Kathique Haynes of the SVG Tourism Authority told PAX. “With an increase in arrivals, there’s more litter, and there’s a lot of things you have to take care of.”
That extends to even being a little picky about what kind of travellers you're marketing to.
“We want to be specific about who we invite,” Haynes said. “We want to target people who understand what [St. Vincent and the Grenadines] is, and appreciate what we have.”
Currently welcoming around 89,000 visitors annually (and counting), the tourism board is protecting its assets by keeping a firm grip on its room stock to prevent overtourism.
“That’s how you control your tourism product,” Beache said.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines currently offers around 2,200 rooms, with some 1,100 more on the way, Beache said. Two properties coming up include a 93-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites near the airport, as well as a 250-room Marriott-branded hotel.
Beache added that the Library Hotel Collection (which, notably, operates Hotel X in Toronto) has also signed off on a new build.
“If we could get anywhere between 3,500 to 4,000 rooms, that sets us to where we want to be,” Beache said.
Sustainability & why travel agents should care
“Tourism is driven by human beings,” Amanda Charles, a sustainable tourism specialist for the CTO, told PAX. “We know the 21st century traveller cares about their environmental footprint [and] the impact they’re having on host communities.”
This drive and demand, said Charles, is important as it allows travel agents to direct their environmentally-conscious clients towards eco-friendly destinations.
It also comes down to standing up for destinations that travel agents make money from.
“If we’re in the business of tourism and we allow these beautiful, pristine environments and natural resources to be deteriorated, then what more can we sell?” Charles said. “We all benefit from sustainability initiatives.”
The SVG Tourism Authority will be bringing its trade-focused roadshow to Canada this fall (October 7th-10th) to engage with travel agents and tour operators. Interested individuals may contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
For more info on the conference, click here, or follow the event’s official hashtag, #STC2019, on social media.
PAX is covering the Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development in St. Vincent and the Grenadines all week. Stay tuned for more updates.
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