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.