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St. Lucia Redefines the Caribbean Vacation

A view of the Pitons, on the southwestern coast.

Photo: Paul Costello

But some of the resistance stems from resentment of the minister of tourism himself, a wealthy man of mostly European descent on an island that’s more than 80 percent black. Furthermore, Chastanet was schooled in Washington, D.C., and Quebec, and has spent much of his career off-island. “He’s known derogatorily as ‘Mr. Miami,’ ” one insider tells me (and she actually supports the plan).

Then there are the cultural and racial undertones, perhaps unavoidable in the Caribbean. Consider the objections of the St. Lucia–born poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who has called tourism “slavery with a smile” and beach resorts “new plantations by the sea.”

Chastanet says he’s learned from his experience in Jamaica, where what he calls the “bunker mentality” of many tourists—who spend their holidays barricaded in resorts—has aggravated an us/them situation. “I don’t think the Caribbean as a whole has been sensitive enough to that issue,” he says. “People rightly ask, ‘Is this service, or is this servitude?’ It’s important to break down that barrier.”

That’s where his plan for local ownership comes in. “The key is engaging the public, keeping them aware of the benefits and the progress that the island is making,” says Cuthbert Didier, manager of the Rodney Bay Marina and an ally of Chastanet’s. “If you don’t have local ownership, it’s not going to work. They’ll see tourism as an invasion.”

Were the master plan carried through, would the “new” St. Lucia actually work? Of course, Chastanet is primarily a salesman—a very skilled one—and as prone as the next official booster to blur the line between progress and mere potential. Part of the job of any tourism minister is to talk mainly in the future tense, to see the world as a bright and shiny artist’s rendering; at times Chastanet seems to live in that rendering.

But he is in the rare position of having worked on both sides of the trade and, crucially, of having been a traveler himself; it’s safe to say that he “gets” it, not just from an upmarket angle but from multiple perspectives. His work with Island Outpost hotels helped him recognize that high-end travel, increasingly, “doesn’t have to be gold-plated, with 700-thread-count sheets. It’s about color, texture, design, provoking emotion.” That sensibility may explain why the tourism plan is as impressive for its relatively good taste as for its sweeping ambition.

Chastanet, who is also the chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, hopes that St. Lucia—and especially Village Tourism—can be an example for the entire region. Whether or not travelers in the Caribbean are indeed seeking substantive experiences or just fairways and daiquiris is, of course, open to debate. And whether a master plan can simply will authenticity and culture into being—creating a permeable, mutually beneficial, sustainable environment for both villagers and travelers—is entirely up in the air. But the answers to those questions may well inform your next vacation.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.

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