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The Key to Caribbean Tourism
by Bob Brooke

According to a recent poll on tourism in the Caribbean, 68 percent of American travelers said they wanted to sightsee, visiting historical sites and seeing the countryside, creating a complete reversal of the American tourist stereotype of a "sun seeker."

For years, the Caribbean nations have fostered an image of sun, sand, and sea with a dash of rum–only to their detriment. Though all began as colonies of foreign powers, each island nation has developed a unique culture in some cases known only to the locals and a few tourists, who seek it out.

At same time, there had been a strong resistance among island nations as a whole to the development of sites of historic and cultural interest. This is because these sites haven’t been aggressively promoted and also because they aren’t of top priority. But some island nations, like Barbados, Grenada, St. Kitts/Nevis, and Antigua/Barbuda have been doing something about it.

In the fall of 1989, Martin W. Beck, then partner in the Barbados-based accounting firm of Ernst an Young, made a proposal at the Caribbean Tourism Conference in Miami to create a "heritage ring" by further developing nine prime historic sites. This was the result of a feasibility study he had conducted of the sites for the Caribbean Conservation Association, also of Barbados.

At that time, Beck said that it would take about $17 million over a period of five to ten years to prepare the nine sites, in eight island nations, for tourism. This amount, he noted, was approximately half of the price of a new 300-room hotel. None of the individual projects would cost more than $3.5 million to develop.

The sites proposed were: Englilsh Harbor in Antigua; the Garrison and Speightstown in Barbados; the Cabrits in Dominica; Fort George in Grenada; Brimstone Hill in St. Kitts; Pigeon Island in St. Lucia; Fort King George in Tobago and Fort Charlotte in St. Vincent.

Many are former military installations and garrisons with commanding views of harbors and the sea. A few, such as Fort George in Grenada, currently in use as a police station, have current uses that detract from their sense of history.

Though the proposal, itself, died, it has made many of the Caribbean nations more aware of the importance of their culture and history.

Beck pointed to the restoration of old San Juan as an example of the success of developing the historic dimension of a destination. Puerto Rico discovered just how financially successful it can be to preserve and promote its historic sites.

Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico was the pioneer in historic preservation. Beginning in 1955, its government established Old San Juan, which was then a slum, as a historic zone. In addition, it created the Institute of Puerto Rican culture and granted a tax exemption to anyone who would restore their home or business in the old city.

While Puerto Rico, a Commonwealth of the United States, has the advantage of being under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, the local government and private citizens are the ones who have done the most to preserve the island's history.

In the seven-square-block area of the old city, more than 400 buildings have been restored in an ongoing effort. Restoration architects captured the charm of old Spain in the narrow cobblestone streets lined with exquisite Spanish colonial buildings painted in pastel colors. Hanging balconies of dark wood or lacy wrought iron, sequestered inner patios accessed through tall wooden doorways, fountains and gardens provide a view of the city's past at every turn. All this, plus fascinating boutiques and art galleries give the district a warm feeling that tourists love.

At the same time, the National Park Service has fully restored El Morro, the magnificent Spanish fortification that juts out into the sea, as well as San Cristobal Fort in the northeast corner of Old San Juan. In addition, there are a dozen museums within the old city plus at least ten other historic sites, including the fascinating San Juan Cemetery.

The Government of Puerto Rico has also restored the Paseo de la Princesa esplanade to its original 19th century splendor. It has created a new Museum of the Americas in the restored 19th-century Cuartel de Ballaja, originally built as the headquarters of the Spanish army in the Caribbean. This 200,000-square-foot museum houses exhibits tracing the development of culture in the Americas from Alaska to Patagonia and from prehistoric times to the present. Owners of many of the old haciendas have restored them and some have turned them into romantic bed and breakfast inns. Also, Ponce, Puerto Rico's second largest city, has been declared an important historical zone and plans are to create other such zones throughout the island.

According to the Caribbean Conservation Association, Barbados has done more with preservation than any of the other islands, second only to Puerto Rico. The key to this success was the formation in 1961 of the Barbados National Trust, modeled after the one in Britain.

Since its inception, the National Trust has been responsible for the restoration of nine historic sites on the island. The town of St. Michael on Barbados now contains one of the finest national museums in the Caribbean, housed in the old military prison of the British garrisons. It traces the history of the island from prehistoric to modern times.

On Sunday and Thursday evenings, the Barbados Museum hosts a pageant, "1627 and All That Sort of Thing," which dramatizes the island's history in the Bajan way, with music and dance. This brings the historic site alive and makes it even more enticing to tourists.

One of Barbados’ newest restorations is the Bridgetown Synagogue, whose congregation was established in 1654. The Jewish community restored the current structure, built in the 1830's and surrounded by a cemetery with gravestones dating to the 17th century. Five former great houses of sugar plantations have also been restored by their owners.

Another island nation that’s working hard to preserve its historic sites is Grenada. The Parliament of Grenada passed legislation creating a National Trust and an additional law putting stiff penalties on anyone harming any historic sites or taking artifacts from them.

Three forts on the island, including Fort George, one of the original nine sites of the Beck proposal, have been restored. Originally built by the French and named Fort Louis, this strategic military installation defending one of the best harbors in the Caribbean and Grenada’s only fort, was overrun by the British and renamed Fort George.

The Canadian International Development Agency gave Fort Frederick, built on a higher level of land to protect Fort George, a significant facelift while an expert from Dominica worked with local craftsmen to complete the interior. It now houses a small visitor center and kiosks for selling local crafts. The third military installation, Fort Matthew, formerly used as an insane asylum and damaged in the 1983 U.S. intervention has yet to be restored.

Dominican Republic
One of the Caribbean’s most extensive restorations is the old city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican government spent millions of dollars restoring old buildings and rebuilding others from existing plans and descriptions in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the first landing of Christopher Columbus. The restored section of the old city is compact, and includes three main attractions–the cathedral, the first in the New World and burial place of Columbus; the Casa Reales, a former governor's palace now filled with artifacts, and the Casa de Colon or Alcazar, the imposing house where Columbus' son Diego lived.

Besides English Harbour, the Caribbean base for Lord Nelson's fleet during the Napoleonic Wars and another of the sites included in the Beck proposal, the government of Antigua has restored Betty's Hope Estate. This plantation, a superb example of the type prominent during the Caribbean sugar era of the 17th and 18th centuries, has been transformed into a "living museum" and interpretative center for the sugar era, with demonstrations of the early process of sugar cane and its conversion to sugar and alcohol. Besides the main house, there are authentically restored windmills, a boiling house, curing house, still, water cisterns, blacksmith shop and quarry.

Governor Keynell founded Betty's Hope in the late 1650's, and in 1668, the King of England granted the estate to Christopher Codrington, a planter from Barbados, who was the first to introduce large-scale sugar cultivation to the Caribbean. For nearly 300 years, from 1685 to 1944, the Codrington family had an interest in Betty's Hope.

A spokesman for the Antigua government said the mill restoration, originally to be completed by early 1991, will take a bit longer than anticipated. At this time, visitors can explore the ruins of two windmill towers and the walls and arches of the boiling house.

St. Eustatius and St. Kitts/Nevis
St. Eustatius was the first of the island nations to have a Historic Core Renovation Plan for restoring Upper Town, the oldest part of Oranjestad, its main city. The Government of St. Eustatius found that Upper Town was deteriorating and began an historic foundation campaign to do something about it. This has made Oranjestad one of a few towns to be renovated on a scheduled plan, which has become a model for the rest of the region.

St. Kitts/Nevis is another island nation that has developed a plan to beautify its main town. A group of interested citizens and merchants established the Basseterre Beautiful Committee to come up with a plan to restore the old wooden buildings in town and give a facelift to other buildings without spending too much money. The group wanted to achieve a more uniform historical look to the older buildings, many of which have been modernized or added to in recent years.

To help a project like this, American Express inaugurated a program of awards grants of $10,000 each, to be used as seed money, that recognized excellence in the protection and enhancement of the Caribbean's historic and architectural heritage.

Historical Museums in the Caribbean
A number of historical museums have opened in the Caribbean region. The Cayman Islands opened its first national museum, modeled after the one on Barbados, in the restored Old Courts Building in George Town, Grand Cayman. Featuring 6,000 square feet of space housing exhibits covering Cayman history and ecology, it also has a 30-seat audiovisual theater, a laser show of various species of tropical fish, and several three-dimensional bathometric maps.. Though smaller, it has tried to have the kind of quality exhibits found in larger museums. While the exhibits are the latest in high-tech, the exterior of the building resembles a simple Cayman-island home with red roof, green shutters and white picket fence.

Another is the SIMARTN Museum in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten. Housed in a restored 19th century West Indian home on Front Street, its exhibits reflect the history and culture of the island and its people. This is a multi-use museum, featuring periodic exhibitions in art, ecology, and history.

Unfortunately, several obstacles have stood in the way of developing a "heritage ring" in the Caribbean. Among these are the lack of coordinated inter island transportation and the demands of competing development projects. However, more and more islands will be joining the historic preservation trend in the future as they see its benefits to tourism.

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