In Sint Eustatius one constantly hears that the island is “in much need of development.”
Development will bring much needed change ultimately solving the island’s many challenges.
We are further told that development will “build economic resilience and create much needed employment”. Interestingly, it seems like the only kind of development being touted is tourism, and if you are critical of the traditional touristic model of development, then you are categorized as negative, anti-development and against progress.
In his 1992 book Sint Eustatius: Treasure Island of the Caribbean, Eric O. Ayisi stated that Sint Eustatius is hooked on tourism “something it has neither the facilities nor the capabilities to handle.” In 2019, Ayisi’s statement remains valid. There is a limited food and water supply, no sewage system, roaming animals, and during many months the island is dry and dusty. In addition to this, there is limited connectivity and the price of a Winair ticket from Sint Maarten in forever increasing.
Interestingly, research illustrates that the traditional touristic model is not very beneficial to those Caribbean islands relying on it. While the Caribbean is characterized as a “tropical paradise”, for every dollar generated by tourism, about thirty cents remains on the island.
Additionally, there has been an increase in literature discussing how tourism in the Caribbean is an outgrowth of the colonial model because it includes selling the single product of “tropical paradise” to North American and European markets, making it very similar to the historical mono-crop agricultural plantation economy.
And what of economic resilience and the job creation? The fact is that tourism primarily brings very low paid service employment to the local population. The local population primarily become “the help” providing service with a smile. In essence they become prisoners by, once again, a mono economy, and the local “primitive” must do as he/she is instructed to do. Essentially the local becomes invisible, non-human and part of the natural landscape to be enjoyed by the tourist. Thus, the idea of “tropical paradise” is a demented fantasy, a social fabrication.
In Sint Eustatius, one often hears that the island does not seek to develop mass tourism, but rather, sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism is the concept of visiting a place as a tourist and trying to make only a positive impact on the environment, society and economy.
The type of sustainable tourism currently being touted for development is ecotourism and is directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. But “sustainable” is an elusive concept as its scope and practice often has little or nothing to do with protecting the people or the environment. According to Mimi Shelter, while the tourist industry requires an endless supply of pristine beaches, untouched coves and emerald pools, coral reefs, native wildlife, natural hiking trails, etc., many islands, such as Sint Eustatius, struggle with the energy, water and sewage demands with sewage often being returned to the same sea in which people swim.
Ayisi provides an alternative to the traditional tourist model when he states that “urban development needs to be controlled and should not be allowed to consume the fertile land that could be used for food cultivation.” Rather “the type of endeavor suitable to the island’s resources would be developing industries in farming and fisheries, and then using tourism as an ancillary to these industries.” Thus, the government should use moral suasion to attract investors who, are not only concerned with development for personal profit, but concerned and interested in providing the necessary support for the primary challenges the island faces.
Examples of investments include a proper integrated water shed environment, experimentation with animal husbandry and care, hydroponic farming of agricultural and fodder crops, information technology etc. Tourists who come to the island could include people willing to assist with the development of these industries or simply those who admire the island’s approach toward development.
The antiquated type of tourism being sought in Sint Eustatius, which includes investors who are only interested in personal economic gain via exploitation, is increasingly being critiqued through a moral lens. There is already a great deal of data showing that this form of development will only deplete the island’s resources, further the economic divide between rich and poor and push the local population into perpetual poverty. If Sint Eustatius actually wants to develop, the island’s resources (land) must not be exploited and eliminated but enhanced through sustainable practices. Most importantly, local people must become the stewards of their island and these practices, not servants to tourists.