The eruptions of La Soufrière volcano on the southern Caribbean island of St. Vincent last month was a destructive event that displaced thousands and left previously-lush communities buried under piles of heavy ash.
But the CEO of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority (SVGTA), which promotes the country’s 32 idyllic islands and cays (St. Vincent being the largest in the chain), refuses to let the eruption of La Soufrière dampen his spirits.
Speaking to media on Wednesday (May 19) to provide an update on the situation in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (“SVG” for short), CEO Glen Beache said he would only refer to La Soufrière by its pet name – “Lala.”
It’s the kind of name that brings a smile to your face. Which was the point.
“You have to put a smile on your face sometimes to make a lighter mood out of everything that’s going on,” said Beache in a livestream video from St. Vincent. “It’s serious, but sometimes one just needs to smile.”
“Imagine 16 inches of snow – being ash”
The April 9 eruption of La Soufrière – or Lala, we should say – was a crisis on top of an already-active crisis in SVG, which, like every other destination around the world, has been doing its best to navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
La Soufrière (meaning "sulfur outlet" in French) is the highest peak in St. Vincent and has had five recorded eruptions since 1718. Until recently, it had been dormant since 1979.
A series of eruptions took place last month, leading to the evacuation of some 20,000 people from St. Vincent’s “Red” and “Orange” zones in the north sides of the island under the volcano. Cruise lines even assisted with the efforts.
In the Red Zone, the hardest hit region, heavy ash has blanketed roads, filled river banks, and has caused homes and rooms in schools to collapse, Beache said.
The CEO, who has Canadian roots, illustrated the devastation in a way that a Canadian could understand.
“Imagine 16 inches of snow – being ash,” he said. “It can’t melt if the sun comes out. It’s just ash.”
And the volcano still “has a bit of grumbling,” Beache said, noting that an exclusion zone, like in Montserrat, which saw a volcanic eruption in 1995, isn’t being considered right now as the situation is still fluid.
The priority, now, is to get residents back into their homes, he said.
“We’ve had some destruction, but we’re going to come back bigger and better, improve on what we had before, [and] make sure our product is arguably the best in Caribbean,” Beache said.
“The waters are still beautiful”
SVG, with a strong agriculture sector, isn’t solely dependent on tourism. But an event like a volcanic eruption will obviously present challenges to all local industries.
Unfortunately, many of SVG’s tourism-related products were located in St. Vincent’s Red Zone, and local tour operators are still evaluating a path forward, Beache said.
But SVG, located in the Lesser Antilles, didn’t experience nation-wide devastation, as one might think.
The southern “Green Zone” region of St. Vincent island “is back to normal,” Beache explained, and the small islands of the Grenadines, known for their yacht-filled harbours, luxurious resorts and sailing routes, weathered the storm “with minimal damage.”
Yachting, sailing and diving, in fact, are three of SVG’s main niche markets (in addition to weddings and other forms of adventure tourism), and despite the setbacks of Lala, those water-based activities, including charter companies, are back up and running.
“The waters are still beautiful. They’re good to go and ready,” Beache said.
The Canadian impact
As PAX learned on a trip to SVG in August 2019, the multi-island nation, which is home to some 110,500 inhabitants and sits 24 miles south of St. Lucia and 75 miles north of Grenada, is still a “new” product and, arguably, remains a best kept secret for being unscathed by mass tourism.
The opening of Argyle International Airport (AIA) in February 2017, which replaced the smaller ET Joshua airport, was a game-changer as it allowed St. Vincent, for the first time ever, to receive wide-bodied jets thanks to a new 9,000-foot runway.
Canada plays an important part in this tale – Air Canada was, in fact, the first international airline to fly directly into SVG.
“Canada holds a special place in our hearts,” Beache said. “The progress of tourism in St. Vincent and the Grenadines…has largely happened because of visitors coming in from Canada.”
Air Canada Rouge, in conjunction with Air Canada Vacations, initially backed those direct flights, which, due to the pandemic, have been suspended.
But Air Canada is, at this time, expected to resume service to St. Vincent on Sept. 13, 2021.
“By September, we’ll be ready to go,” Beache said, noting that vaccination rates will be higher by then.
Mass tourism isn't the goal
Canadian travellers are known to be “more adventurous,” Beache said, which fits nicely into the type of immersive experience one should expect when visiting SVG for the first time.
But the unique, eco-minded treasures of SVG (which, by the way, only has some 2,200 rooms) are found beyond the walls of all-inclusive and boutique resorts.
With both white and black-sand beaches, St. Vincent is the main territory and the Grenadine islands extend 45 miles southwest from there.
Bequia, Mustique, Union Island, Canouan, Palm Island, Mayreau, Young Island, for example, are inhabited by people, whereas other islands are not, save for a population of spectacular wildlife.
In the eco-protected Tobago Cays, an archipelago of five smaller islands with coral reefs surrounded by green and blue water, one will find turtles, geckos, iguanas, topical fish and more than 150 species of birds.
Sustainability has a huge influence on SVG’s outlook on tourism, and for Beache, drawing mass crowds isn’t the goal.
“I don’t want you visiting St. Vincent and the Grenadines and looking around, feeling as if you haven’t left Canada,” he said. “It has to be an experience.”
The way Beache sees it, SVG, with its authentically-Caribbean food, culture and landscapes, isn’t a “tired product” that people have become fed up with.
“We consider ourselves not so much the new kid on the block, but an exciting teenager on the block,” as he put it.
And any efforts to promote tourism should done with the intention of ensuring SVG is there for generations to come, he said.
“We look at our competition to see what mistakes they’ve made and try to make sure we do not make those same mistakes,” he said.
New hotels are coming
This doesn’t, however, necessarily mean SVG is against development.
A handful of new hotels are on the horizon, including a 200-room Beaches Resort, which will resume construction in June with the aim of opening its first phase by next year.
A 93-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites, 10 minutes from the airport, is coming, and so is a 250-room Marriott-branded hotel, which is expected to open in the next two years.
A 200-room luxury resort and residence, called Royal Mill, is also set to open by the end of next year.
“We don’t need to have 10,000 rooms,” Beache said. “If we can get anywhere between 3,500-4,000 rooms, we’re set. It still gives you that uniqueness to the point where visitors still feel like they’re in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”
Tourism is about communities
SVG is clearly careful in terms of where it puts its resources, especially as it rises in popularity, ensuring that environments, and locals, benefit from whatever tourism dollars are generated.
“Tourism isn’t just about hotels. It’s about the communities,” Beache said, “and if the communities aren’t feeling that tourism dollar, it really doesn’t do as much as we think it’s doing.”
To that end, as SVG turns a page in the destruction caused by Lala, tourism will play an important part in the recovery, the CEO added.
“That’s a huge part for us – getting back to where we need to be,” Beache said, "improving on [tourism], and making sure that the communities are more involved than they were previously in terms of sustainability and making sure people’s livelihoods get back to some sort of normalcy.”
“This is not an overnight recovery, but I can guarantee you that we’ll be back stronger than ever.”
For information on how you can help with recovery efforts in SVG, click here.
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