By Alexander Britell
ST KITTS — As the Caribbean seeks to diversify its “sun, sand and sea” tourism product, Grenada, the “Spice Isle,” is taking a unique approach, looking at “community tourism,” in which the government aims both to foster local development and improve interaction between guests and locals. But that’s not to say Grenada is not looking to feature its sun sand and sea — with plans for increased yachting arrivals and to feature Grenada as a recreational diving hub. To learn more about Grenada’s tourism sector, Caribbean Journal talked to Tourism Minister Dr George Vincent at the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Industry conference last week about community tourism, the untapped potential of downtown St George’s and recent promotional work by sprinting sensation and gold medalist Kirani James.
Where do you see Grenada’s tourism sector in 2012?
We’re building in Grenada. We’re trying to put structures in place to facilitate growth. We are growing slowly in the stayover sector — we’ve done 7 percent year to date, but the cruises do not look as good. The reason for that is that we are in the southern Caribbean, and we have ships that have reduced their calls, and we are trying to get that up again. But it takes two years. So we’re working on 2014, 2015, and encouraging ships for calls in those years. So we’re beginning the work now to improve the product, to improve the experience and to improve [visitor] spending. Spending is very important to us, so we are working with vendors and taxis and tour bus training, and making lots of minor enhancements to the products we have now, with the infusion of culture and dance and song and carnival. We’re doing lots of festivals to improve the activities that we have. We are focused on dive, and yachting, and community tourism. We believe that the community is really ready and willing to put on community activities for our local benefit, that we invite the visitor to take part in, so we are building that and inviting the visitor to come and share with us what we do. So that’s kind of where we’re going.
What are the biggest assets that you believe Grenada has?
What we have here is really our biggest asset — our graciousness, our humility, like you have seen in Kirani. The second pillar on this is the safety and security. We are about the safest destination in the Caribbean, and that is why we are promoting the rural community — because it is really safe to rent a car and drive almost anywhere and you are going to meet friendly people and hospitable people. So those are the pillars which we are building everything. In addition, we are focusing on the dive. We are the Caribbean’s best rec dive destination. We also have an underwater sculpture park. The snorkeling is exceptional. So we are focusing on dive and snorkeling. Our yachting is really huge. We have marinas that are now attracting some of the mega-yachts that spend mega-bucks. And we’re trying to increase our room stock. Right now we have 1,500 rooms, and we’re trying ot get at least 2,000. Because that would help us with marketing and with airlift. So we think that it is important to have a flagship hotel — that would help us, aid us in the marketing and promotion so it would build and lift all boats as we go forward. But we are building the people side of it. We are building on our people and our humility, and that’s where we think we differ. We have really greatly infused the culture in the product. So we have the Spice Basket, that was opened last year, and they really do an interpretation of Grenada’s history through dance and song. We are also trying to attract soft adventure [tourists], more active tourists — adrenaline tourism — zip lines and all that kind of thing. Because there is a market for that, we think, as we go forward. We think that we have a product that is Caribbean, but uniquely Caribbean. Because we are still unspoiled. We still have the same sun, sea and sand, but we infused the eco-environment within 133 square miles. So we are nice and tidy, and very diverse.
Last month, the government announced the launching of a wind farm project in Carriacou. Do you see eco-tourism as having potential for Grenada?
We are trying to go towards sustainable tourism. And the energy sector is really important. So we are working with the electricity company to produce alternative energy in the form of wind. We are encouraging the hotels to do solar energy to replace fuel costs. But the sustainable tourism thing is where we’re heading. I tell folks — long ago things like IT and languages were important. Now, they are only platforms to build on. So we are building a sustainable platform, and we will. Everything down the road is supposed to be sustainable, green, eco-friendly. So we have the energy, we have the preservation, we have the rainforest, and we have a number of marine parks that are well-preserved. So we’re doing fine in the area of preservation, and we are now going to convert that preservation to use, and make it work for us. So we feel that Grenada benefits greatly from preservation and conservation.
Kirani James, who was recently named a Tourism Ambassador, has become the new face of Grenada’s tourism. What would you say he has achieved to this point, with the way he is perceived around the world?
Kirani is our baby. He has really done very well for himself. However, we must remember that he is still 20 years old, and he has three Olympics ahead of him. So we expect our golden boy to continue to be golden, and continue to remain humble and continue to work with us to help promote Grenada as a gracious destination. So he has his work cut out — but we are not pushing him. He is going back to training in January. But he is doing his best for us this coming year for tourism.
Above: Kirani James and St George’s
You took office in May. Is there anything you have learned or by which you have been surprised since being reacquainted with the tourism sector?
I have been in tourism for the last 20-25 years. So I studied tourism, and prior to becoming minister I was, for two years, the consultant to the last minister. So I am kind of comfortable with the tourism package. The challenges are many. Because we are tied in our ways with our old systems, and we have to unite them. And we are doing it step by step, piece by piece, changing destinations, changing personnel, and we have taken a position that attitude in tourism is going to be a really big thing in hiring going forward — not so much academics. It’s skills and attitude. You have to have the right attitude — you can’t teach attitude. You have to be born with it.
We see a trend of travelers looking to metropolitan and urban areas for vacations, and the Caribbean frequently talks about transcending “sun, sand and sea.” What kind of future do you think St George’s has for Grenada as an urban area?
St George’s is the place — particularly the Carenage area. It is sad that we had, by necessity, to move the cruise port to the outer harbor, because I understand that St George’s is the most beautiful entrance to any port anywhere in the Caribbean. So we know of the potential. We know that, in the Mediterranean, people spend millions and millions to build what we have. So we are quite aware. However, you have to balance people’s livelihood and the health of the city for its commerce, the local commerce, at least on the visitor side. So it’s taking a little while to design it in order to make everybody comfortable in that space. So we are encouraging visitors to come to St George’s. But there are new challenges, which we are beginning this season to address. One of them is the traffic flow. We are going to pedestrianize some streets to make it easy for visitors to flow. We have just done a historic tour, where one can pick up a visitor guide and look at the buildings and learn their stories. We are hoping that, down the road, we can use the Carenage as an extensive mega-yacht or yachting facility. But some infrastructure work must be done there first. So it is a plan to go there, to make it a true tourism destination. However, it takes time, and it takes money. And we are treading cautiously — and growing it, so that in 10 to 15 years, we should have a really nice St George’s capital, that is visitor friendly, is local friendly and would induce lots of commerce and lots of restaurants, nightclubs and evening shopping.
How do you balance development in St George’s with preservation?
It’s a Georgian town. The Georgian facades, its building and its iron works. They’re still there. We have a challenge of keeping it in its present form. There are lots of applications to go to glass, but we are preserving it, and we are going to hopefully use the legislature and rules and regulations to ensure that it remains as pristine as it is. But at the same time, to bring the commerce, and bring the activity, and the entertainment to St George’s — and make it the nightlife capital of Grenada.
We often ask tourism ministers this question. Where would you like to see Grenada’s tourism sector in five or 10 years?
We are hoping to continue on the same path. To add an additional 500 rooms, so the airlift would be much easier. To train our people to deliver better experiences, because we think we have it. It’s just that we need to work with all of Grenada — to make everybody a stakeholder as we go forward. So the effort is to be all-inclusive, all-embracing, so that the rural communities would be the places that visitors would go in the evening. They could go to St David’s on a Wednesday evening, to Fish Friday in Gouyave, in order that things would be decentralized — with festivals and activity in the villages, while keeping them safe and friendly so we allow our guests to interact with real Grenadians. We want that to happen. We don’t want them stuck in a hotel, we want them meeting real people — the interaction, the customized packages so when you are on the island you go around and spread the wealth around. We really need to spread the wealth around. In five or ten years, we should really be tops in the rec-dive and diving, and the yachting industry should have doubled by then, focusing on mega-yachts. It about the investment and investors to get us there. And we, as government, are trying to facilitate these investments as much as possible.