The Rebirth of Montserrat

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Above: MDC CEO Ivan Browne at Caribbean Journal’s headquarters in Miami (CJ Photo)

By Alexander Britell

MIAMI — The Eastern Caribbean island of Montserrat is eyeing a renaissance.

Almost 19 years after the volcano that devastated half the island and destroyed its capital city, Plymouth, the British Overseas Territory has big plans: a new capital, a new port and a new life as a tourism destination.

Speaking at a media forum hosted at Caribbean Journal’s headquarters in Miami on Wednesday, Ivan Browne, CEO of the Montserrat Development Corporation, outlined the island’s plans for new development.

For almost the last two decades, the island has been focusing its efforts on “putting the island’s infrastructure back together again,” he said.

Now, the focus is on economic development and attracting investment.

It’s all centered on a site called Little Bay and Carr’s Bay, located in the “safe” zone of the island, a 225-acre site that will house the new capital town, a port, a marina, an 80-to-100-room hotel and other mixed-use development.

All told, the goal is to attract about $150 million for the new port project, and between $350 million and $400 million for the rest of the project, Browne said.

All of the new developed is concentrated on the north of the island, which, volcanic experts say, is utterly protected from any future eruptions by a series of rolling hills and the historical pattern of pyroclastic flows, which have tended to flow east and west, but not north, Browne said.

Above: a rendering of Montserrat’s new planned capital

And a large part of the development plans are tied to tourism, at one time a major economic driver on the island and something that decades ago drew in longtime Beatles producer Sir George Martin, who hosted recording sessions by artists including Eric Clapton, Elton John, The Police and the Beatles on the island and maintains a guest house there.

The plan, Browne said, is not mass tourism but creating a product focused around “affordable luxury, upscale tourism.”

“It’s somebody who wants something different in the Caribbean,” he said. And despite the tragedy of the volcano, Browne said that, too, could serve as a kind of attraction, a chance for people to look at “a buried capital, a sort of modern-day Pompeii.”

The volcano has afforded a kind of notoriety, Browne said, something that could prove to be something of an advantage as the country looks to draw in new tourism, but not something on which it wished to dwell.

Above: the master plan for Little Bay and Carr’s Bay

“We’re trying to let people understand that it is more than the volcano,” he said. “A lot of people tend to think there are no people on the island, and we’re trying to say, ‘no, there’s a vibrant economy of 5,000 people on a lovely island that has overcome these natural disaster and are looking to welcome people back.”

The last two decades have seen a transformation on the island. Half of the island is the so-called “Exclusion Zone,” the portion that was devastated by the volcano. Before the eruption, nearly 12,000 people lived on the island; today, that number is 5,000, although that represents an uptick from recent years as some Montserratians have moved back home, seeking the quiet and calm of one of the region’s more untouched places.

Above: Ivan Browne details Montserrat’s plans at the Caribbean Journal media event in Miami

“It’s a unique island,” he told Caribbean Journal. “It’s got a very resilient people who have been through a series of natural disasters. We’re very friendly, it’s very safe — and a number of people move to Montserrat because of that. We still have people who leave their cars open, who leave their houses open overnight.”

For years, he said, Montserrat had a self-sustaining economy, and the plan is to return to that.

“Prior to Hurricane Hugo and before the first eruption, we had a successful, diverse economic base of tourism, light manufacturing, agriculture and medical education,” he said. “We were entirely self-sufficient. We did not require any budgetary aid from Her Majesty’s government. We’re trying to get back to that stage where we were self-sufficient. That’s the aim — to by, say, 2020, that we can start being well on the road to self-sufficiency again.

So far, Montserrat has been courting investors around the world, including in areas that have recently been ramping up their interest in Caribbean investment: the United Arab Emirates and China.

Browne said the island was in part held back by its inability to offer Economic Citizenship as other countries like, most notably St Kitts and Nevis, have been able to do, because of Montserrat’s status as a British Overseas Territory.

The restriction on doing that has prevented the island from obtaining as much as $62.5 million in investment, Browne said.

But Montserrat offered another benefit beyond monetary return, he said: the opportunity to be a part of rebuilding an entire country.

“We’ve had a lot of people who are sort of anxious to be involved, not only from a financial point of view,but from a sort of emotive point of view,” he said. “”It’s not often people can say they were involved in the birth of a new capital.”