Owning our Paradise


Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her appeal to treasure our priceless natural resources, and urges a return to the more entrepreneurial and direct relationship between host homes and visitors, especially in Tobago. This feature "Owning our Paradise" was first published in Tobago Newsday, on Thursday July 21, 2016


Over the last few years, I have been lucky enough to visit coral reef environments across the Caribbean and in the Pacific. I have observed that many people who “live in paradise” are able to benefit and succeed in the tourism industry, when their first priority is to care about their own livelihoods and to protect the coastal ecosystems in their backyards. These fortunate communities are those that know that these natural habitats are their tourism products. And if you are not happy in your backyard, why will anyone else be interested? It also goes beyond that: there is no substitute for home.

I often think back to the time when I lived in Tobago, how much I enjoyed being able to swim laps in Grange bay after work everyday. For this simple pleasure, I felt so lucky to live the life that others envy, and would pay a lot of money for. Tobago is our little piece of paradise, and we ought to preserve it, first for ourselves so that we might share it with others.

Let me share some examples of things that other people living in paradise have done to keep their homes a paradise, which become their drawing cards for tourism.  First stop Hawai’i. On the island of Kaui’i, the law ensures that no building is taller than a coconut tree. This law was passed in order to conserve its coastal beauty, and to prevent high-rise hotels from blocking the views for the resident. This has not prevented tourists from flocking to this Garden Isle. The Na-Pali coast of Kaua’i is a natural wonder untouched by “development.” It has become a favourite natural setting for movies such as Jurassic park and Indiana Jones.

View of the Na-Pali coast, Kaua'i, photo by Anjani Ganase

Next stop Mexico, to a small island just off the coast of Cancun, known as Isla Mujeres. Cancun has suffered severe environmental damage through the loss of coastline to hotels. However Isla Mujeres remains a stark contrast to the hotel peninsula of Cancun. Isla Mujeres is home to about 12000 inhabitants who reside next their very own coral reef, known as Manchones reef.  This reef has suffered greatly over the years from physical damage from snorkellers, divers and boats, and in an attempt to reduce the physical pressure, Dr. Jaime Gonzalez Cano, the local head of Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (SEMARNAT) took an unconventional approach.  He initiated a system in which the divers, and snorkellers were redirected to an underwater sculpture museum, set on the sandy flats in about 5 m of water. For this, an English artist - Jason de Caires Taylor- was hired to create the sculptures. Taylor used local residents as his models for the sculptures; this ensured their physical and cultural connection to the reef and concern for its visitors (musaislamujeres.com). I was lucky to dive among these sculptures, and was in awe of how nature added to this artwork through natural growth of reef organisms, such as algae, sponges and coral, on these sculptures, changing the expressions of these sculptures over time.

Similar plans have been made for Tobago’s Buccoo reef using the creativity of our very own masman-artist Peter Minshall. Although this plan is clever, it will only work to its full potential with the additional attention to improving water quality and regulating fishing to ensure recovery of the reef.
 
Isla Mujeres, Underwater Museum Photo courtesy XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Perhaps the most laudable example of a country protecting their paradise at the highest level is the Republic of Palau. An island nation in the Pacific, Palau, is closely connected to its land and marine habitats, including coral reefs, for food and livelihoods. In acknowledging this relationship, the Palauan government has promised to conserve its natural resources. This is an example of a country that has identified their biggest asset, their “island home.” And it is actively protected at the community and the government levels to ensure that it continues to provide income in the long-term, not just from tourism but also from sustainable fisheries. I hope one day to visit Palau, with the comfort and confidence that the coral reefs and the local communities will be thriving and healthy for many decades.

Over the last few years, there have also been shifts in the curiosity and expectations of travellers. People no longer want to be penned in all-inclusive resorts. They are looking for authentic relationships and experiences in the places they visit. This is true especially for the regular budget traveller, for whom, new online forums, such as AirBNB (airbnb.com), have opened up a world of opportunity for people living in paradise who are willing open their homes to travellers, offering a room or even a guest house, for the experience of living like a local, in simple comfort. These opportunities bring the market, the income, the story telling and connections right to your doorstep. Authentic hospitality and original experiences are possible when the host and guest meet each other without intermediaries. This can be the platform for an entrepreneurial approach in Tobago. The government’s role in this would be to support paradise with legislation, and host homes with tax and improvement incentives.



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