Community leaders discussed the benefits of “smart growth” and geo-tourism Tuesday night at a public meeting held at the University of the Virgin Islands. The meeting was organized by the St. Croix Environmental Association (SEA) and St. Croix Unified for Community, Culture, Environment, and Economic Development (SUCCEED).
The central theme of the evening was marketing the things that are inherent to St. Croix, starting with its history, its people, and its natural beauty.
“If you grow your small businesses based on your assets—your cultural assets, your historical and heritage assets, your environmental assets—then you can’t go wrong,” said Claudette Young-Hinds, the president of SUCCEED.
SUCCEED’s vision is to establish St. Croix as an international geo-tourism destination. Geo-tourism differs from run-of-the-mill tourism in that it is directed at cultural experiences. Geo-tourists want to experience real life in the places they visit, not pre-packaged resort vacations.
“The people who are traveling are traveling because they want an authentic experience,” said Young-Hinds. “They don’t want to come here and eat Micky D’s. They want to eat the food that you eat. They want to hear your music. They want to hear your stories. They want to see the natural beauty.”
She continued, arguing that this was the way tourism used to be in the mid-20th century when families would return year after year. “There was no casino for them to gamble in. They were here for the authentic experience of the people of St. Croix,” she said.
By putting an emphasis on Crucian culture, St. Croix could also distinguish itself from its neighbors.
“Every Caribbean island has sand, sea, and sun,” Young-Hinds noted.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first step of a three-phase plan. SUCCEED and SEA will host two more similar meetings, one Thursday at Claude O. Markoe School, and the other on Tuesday, March 20, at Pearl B. Larsen School. Both meetings are from 6:30-8:30 p.m. These meetings comprise the Phase One, or the Informative Phase.
Phase Two will be comprised of another round of meetings in late April or May, during which business people interested in the heritage industry can submit ideas for an action plan.
In Phase Three, the action plan will be refined into a blueprint for heritage economic development. The blueprint would help guide the National Heritage Area should St. Croix succeed in its bid for that designation.
While Young-Hinds said that approval of the Heritage Area was not essential for SUCCEED to continue pushing towards geo-tourism, it would be a big help. The federal designation brings with it a yearly budget of up to $1 million to aid businesses and non-profits that promote Crucian heritage.
Throughout the evening, Young-Hinds emphasized that for geo-tourism to work, local institutions would have to come up with the plan. Neither SUCCEED nor the Heritage Area would attempt to institute a top down strategy.
“We’re not planning for you,” she said. “We’re planning with you.”
Young-Hinds did stress the importance of cooperation, however. She warned the crowd several times that “one hand can’t clap.”
“We need an agenda,” she told the crowd. “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.”
She cautioned that disorganization or hastily made decisions could lead to the island being exploited.
“The carpetbaggers like nothing better than to see you operating from a desperate mode,” she said. “We have the intelligence, we have the ability, we have the history to come together and decide what road is best for us and our future generations.”
Members of the panel included of Ms. Young-Hinds; Frandelle Gerard, executive director of CHANT; Paul Chakroff, executive director of SEA; Michael Dembeck, executive director of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce; and Nate Olive of the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute.