Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every other Friday.
I'm sharing a taxi from Dominica's rudimentary Melville Hall airport with a Colorado woman who spends months sailing the eastern Caribbean with her husband. What do they think of Dominica?
"It's one of our favorite islands. The scenery. It's so unspoiled. The reefs are still pristine. And the people. " She gropes for words, repeats, "It's unspoiled."
By luck, not design. So I learn when I join a team of tourism graduate students from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I'm here to eavesdrop on their masters project: a ten-day "rapid assessment" of Dominica's tourism problems and opportunities. My interest is personal; I covered the 29-mile-long (47-kilometer-long) island for National Geographic Traveler six years ago, wondering then, could this place really stay unspoiled?
Dominica is not like other Caribbean islands, and most emphatically not like the homonymous Dominican Republic. The Commonwealth of Dominica (dah-min-EE-ka) speaks English, not Spanish; lies in the Lesser Antilles, not Greater; and looks more Hawaiian than Caribbean. Its lush, wildly crumpled landscape, festooned with waterfalls, includes mountains that rise to 4,747 feet (1,447 meters). It's got unjaded, friendly people. It's got low prices. It's got the world's only Carib Indian reserve. It's got rare parrots, scuba diving, whale-watching, Shangri-la views, and possibly the best-known hike in the Caribbeanthe three-hour trek to the volcanically heated Boiling Lake. Reasonably enough, it's been promoting itself as the Caribbean's Nature Island.
Its economy, however, is suffering, thanks partly to a successful U.S. campaign to remove European Union banana subsidies on which the tiny country has relied. Now Dominica needs visitors more than ever, yet it has no jetport, few beaches, no big hotels, and no significant shopping.
Enter the George Washington team. When I join them this evening on the veranda at the little Hummingbird Inn, they're comparing notes from their first week of tourism-assessing.
"The dive sites were phenomenal," says Luis. Others agree.
"But there's a major trash and turbidity problem at the shoreline," points out Catherine.
"Most tourists will be turned off by that," concurs professor Donald Hawkins, the leader. He asks about a proposed trail system. Could Dominica be an adventure destination?
"They'll need better marketing," says Scott. "I follow the dive literature, for instance, and I had no idea this place existed."
"We went on a hike to the southeast coast at Glaci Boetica," says Rob. "It was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. No tourist would know it's there."
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