Sunday, November 4, 2012

Eco tourism at last? - the Peter O'Connor commentary

The Minister of Tourism, Honourable Stephen Cadiz, visited the Asa Wright Nature Centre two Mondays ago. Unfortunately, none of the local media came along to hear the Minister speak about the potential for Eco-tourism which Asa Wright typifies in these islands of natural wonders.
 And this is not a complaint against the media for not being here, for, after all, a visit beginning at 9.00 am all the way up along the scary Arima Blanchisseuse Road, is not the easiest of events to get to, far less “cover”. 

But their absence on that day at least gives me the opportunity to write about the Trinidad & Tobago I love “first”—our beautiful lands and natural heritage. And it gives me a chance to break away from my anger and frustration at our politics, and our acquiescence of all that goes on under that heading. 

So I will tell you a little about the Minister’s visit to Asa Wright and what Asa Wright means (should mean?) to our country’s stated interest that that thing called “Eco Tourism”.

As we all know, many, if not most “foreigners” do not know where Trinidad and Tobago is or who or what we are. Some wonder if we are a part of Jamaica, which for many, is the Caribbean—full stop! But strangely, while millions of people world-wide, and “educated” people at that, do not know anything about us or our islands, millions of naturalists do know who we are and where we are. So how come?

Because we are a land of wonders in this respect! The “bush” and “swamps” that we would so happily bulldoze and fill with buildings that “look just like Miami” are a tremendous attraction to all those people who are becoming enlightened about the natural world and want to visit it where it still exists. 

And we still have some of it here, folks! Yes, we are still holding on to tracts of rainforest, unbelievably beautiful wetlands, savannahs, shorelines and reefs which have been destroyed in the “developed world”, and where “developed people” have learned, with regret, that the destruction was a terrible mistake.

So we in these little islands have held on (so far?) to what the developed world has regrettably lost, and there are, believe it or not, people who do come here just to experience “nature”. 

Not Carnival, not “sun and sea”, not the misnomer of “the True Caribbean”, but the birds of our islands, the flowers and trees, the swamps and forests. And full credit to the Ministry of Tourism for finally acknowledging this treasure chest hidden in our wildernesses, and recognizing that tourists from other lands actually will pay to come here and enjoy all of this. 

But let me pause to acknowledge that people also come here for Carnival, for the sun and even, when so misled, probably for the “true Caribbean”, which we are not. There is also a huge potential for Sports Tourism, but that is another story.

The Asa Wright Nature Centre has quietly catered to overseas visitors since its founding in 1967. Indeed, as Spring Hill Estate, it had hosted naturalists and bird watchers from the 1940’s. So, when the Minister thinks “Eco-Tourism”, it is only natural that he comes to the spring, so to speak—the country’s oldest, and probably only genuine Eco-resort, to see what is it that attracts the people here?

The answer is Nature: An uncontrived, conserved, protected tract of forested land high in the Arima Valley. The built area comprises a tiny footprint in a vast expanse of forest, with myriad streams sparkling down the steep hills. Nature Trails meander through the estate. 

But Asa Wright is really famous worldwide for its tremendous variety of birds. Indeed, Trinidad and Tobago is one of the best, places in the world for Bird Watchers to visit. And Bird Watchers certainly outnumber Carnival “feters” worldwide! So this is an excellent source of tourists to woo to our islands. 
As famous as Asa Wright might be—actually it is a “destination” in many peoples’ minds, they choosing to visit Asa Wright before recognizing that they must come to Trinidad to do so—we have other world-famous birding and nature sites as well: Caroni Swamp, the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, Nariva Swamp, and the Main Ridge in Tobago. 

Then we have the unique turtle-nesting experiences at Grande Riviere and Matura, where simple country people recognized, long before the government or corporate T&T did, the value of these creatures coming to our shores. Then there is the beautiful diving potential off Tobago and so much more.

I applaud the government for committing the country to eco-tourism, for this may create the enlightenment needed to understand the imperative for preserving our forests, hills, and wildlife—for so much more than just tourism.

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai