"Nobody knows about it here either," rejoins his wife, Julie. The country lacks systematic information about its own attractions.
Someone notes an image problem: The whale-watching Nature Island votes with Japan to support, hmm, whaling. Uncoincidentally, Japan has funded assorted facilities near Roseau, the capital.
The Dominican government also continues to woo cruise ships, even though they seem to be heavy-hoofed cows with no milk. One study says that cruise lines supplied 54 percent of the island's visitors, who inundate sights like the charming Emerald Pool, but the ships accounted for only 5 percent of visitor expenditures. Roseau is not a shopping town, so up to half the passengers don't even get off the ship, Hawkins reports, and of those who do, half don't buy anything and go back to the boat for lunch.
The next day, I meet Lennox Honychurch, anthropologist, historian, and unofficial national critic. Despite the "Nature Island" billing, he complains, the island has ineffective waste management, no ecotourism certification program, and inadequate training for park rangers and would-be innkeepers. I remark that at least the little second-floor national museum near the waterfront in Roseau must get cruise passengers. Wrong. Honychurch, radiating frustration, imitates an American accent: "Oh, honey, I don't want to climb those stairs."
Honychurch is no less frustrated with his own countrymen, among whom a scheme-of-the-moment mentality persiststhe aerial tram, for instance. In 1997, Dominica won a coveted World Heritage listing (see related story) for its rugged, jungly Morne Trois Pitons National Park, home to the Boiling Lake. Soon thereafter, a Canadian businessman proposed building an aerial tram to the lake for cruise ship passengers. It would short-circuit the famous hike, overburden the pond-size lake site, and spoil the wildness of the landscape. The government approved it. Only after World Heritage officials said that the plan would endanger the park's prized new status did the government agree to keep the tram route outside the park. Construction proceeded, and last month the new Rain Forest Aerial Tram opened to the public, bringing visitors on a one-mile (1.6-kilometer) ascent along the park border.
The students are discovering failed projects lying around the island like beached whales. A sprawling hotel conference center in the middle of the island rises from high grass, abandoned. Misspent international aid has funded overbuilt visitors centers next to small natural attractionsthe classic "edifice complex"while little if any support goes to training local guides and rangers. Aid loans built new small hotels unencumbered by research on what visitors actually want: The buildings hug the busy road, Dominican style, their backs to the island's gorgeous views.
Several students and I inspect the silliest misstep of all, on the Carib Indian Reserve, high on the rugged eastern coast. The Indians have long wanted to create a historically accurate, 15th-century Carib village for educating visitors. Somehow, this admirable project ended up in the hands not of the Indians, not of anthropologists, but of government engineers. Their priority was to meet a standard development-loan requirement: All structures must be hurricane-proof.
The resulting village? Let's just say that hurricane-proof, 15th-century palm-frond huts require lots of concrete.
Yet just up the road, a Carib mom-and-pop operation called Karina Village does arrange to showcase authentic Carib culturedance, music, and crafts. Small attractions like Karina could probably make much better use of foreign aid, but to get it, Dominica's tour operators, ecolodges, and community groups need to work together far more effectively.
So says the fat report I receive weeks later from the George Washington University team. Dominica, they recommend, should develop health and spa tourism, accented with Caribbean natural-foods cuisine; true ecotourism, with conservation and community benefits; heritage tourism, with Carib Indian participation; and adventure travelhiking, diving, and an adventure marathon event. Being a mite older and wearier than the students, I would add one more: scenic R and R. Few islands have more places so perfect for relaxing in front of a drink, a book, and a fabulous view.
That's why, when I saw the sign in the airport departure loungeTHANKS FOR VISITING OUR NATURE ISLAND. COME AGAINI thought, well, yes, I probably will.
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