Caribbean resorts: With King Sugar dethroned, St. Kitts seeks golf tourists
ST. KITTS - It is possible to drive around St. Kitts and take in all of the hope, promise and economic tragedy of more than three centuries.
St. Kitts and Nevis were in the sugar industry for 360 years. King Sugar has been the very core of the islands' existence - the basis of their economy, shaping the population and even the physical landscape.
Now, the cane fields stand lush and untended - the ones that haven't been burned, that is. No workers come to harvest the cane; no trucks deliver it to the factory. The green, healthy fields stand a living monument to changing times.
St. Kitts, once the center of the British sugar trade in the West Indies, harvested its final cane crop last year. The end of European sugar subsidies to African, Caribbean and Pacific states, coupled with the inefficiency of state-run sugar companies, caused a massive upheaval for the crop that once drove Caribbean economies.
"It was more than just a job to us here in St. Kitts," Agriculture Minister Cedric Liburd said I a speech marking the final harvest.
"Every one of us has had a personal relationship with King Sugar in some way: Our parents, our families, our friends, our neighbors in some way have all been touched by King Sugar. It was our way of life."
St. Kitts will now rely mostly on tourism to feed its people. The island expects an infusion of some $17 billion over next 20 years. Plans are afoot for new resorts, golf courses, racetracks, casinos and like enterprises designed to lure sun- and fun-seekers from the U.S. and Europe.
Naturally, there are fears that the island's terrific natural resources, including coral reefs and rainforest, could be put at risk.
The coral reefs of both St. Kitts and Nevis are exposed to the usual degradation from development-driven coastal construction, such as sewage discharge and siltation. Officials and conservation groups are doing what they can to limit the damage.
The rainforest appears to be better off. As the source of much of the island's drinking water, it has a much more visible impact on Kittians' everyday lives. It has been officially protected for more than 100 years, though it isn't exactly hands-off: Residents are still allowed in to gather fruit and cut hardwood for firewood and fish traps.
It will also attract tourists. A recent tour showed why.
The temperature drops several degrees as soon as you enter the shelter of the green canopy. There are no snakes or mosquitoes. The mongoose, an introduced species, took care of the snakes, and mosquitoes don't bother to climb this high up in the hills - there aren't enough warm-blooded mammals to feed on.
The trees are filled with vervet monkeys, likely to delight tourists as much as they annoy natives, who consider them pests, even vermin. They were introduced by the French, who knew the creatures would bedevil the British farmers who would soon take over the island. This the vervets did, and still do, though the government doesn't necessarily want tourists to know that.
The tour began at Romney Manor, a huge former sugar plantation. The ruins that date back to the late 1800s now house the Caribelle Batik Factory, where you can buy batik t-shirts. The shop is surrounded by botanical gardens, with exotic plants like Turk's Cap Cactus, native to the West Indies, and Jamaica Dwarf Heliconia, native to Ecuador.
The mammoth trees that provide much of the rainforest's shade give it the name "Valley of the Giants": huge Mimosas, called the "4 o'clock tree" because its leaves close up like clockwork every afternoon; the spreading Saman trees, some more than 300 years old and twice as wide as they are high; and big Ficus trees with their "air roots."
There are also huge red cedars, papaya and avocado orchards, calabash trees, tangerines that yield perfume, "catch-and-keep" vines (the jungle's Velcro) and the "stinking toe," a fruit that is actually quite tasty.
There are exploding sandbox trees with their toxic sap and, oh yes, industrial diamonds, which can be found lying on the trail, particularly after heavy rains. And of course, there is the Kapok, or "Devil's tree," prized by devotees of Obeah, the folk religion widely practiced throughout the Caribbean.
And, cutting down the side of the mountains through it all, are the streams that give life to the forest and the people of the island.
April 19, 2007