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The Business of Cultural Heritage Tourism

I listened with great interest and concern to a recent Planning & Environmental Protection Committee hearing chaired by Senator Alvin Williams on Oct. 8, 2008, regarding the controversial proposed development of villas on Thatch Cay off the island of St. Thomas. Project architect Robert deJongh, president of DeJongh Associates, was on point when he said there is no comprehensive plan which reflects the sentiments of the people or government with respect to controlled development of our cays. No uniform policies exist and the government's approach so far has been arbitrary and inconsistent.
This matter has to be addressed through an overall approach to economic development in the territory that proudly values the cultural and natural resources of the Virgin Islands, in turn enhancing our tourism industry. The footwork for such a plan was developed at the We the People Cultural Heritage Tourism Conference spearheaded in September 2007 by the V.I. Humanities Council.
Over 250 people came to Carambola Beach Resort on St. Croix – from stakeholders to government and elected officials, school age youth, entrepreneurs, cultural bearers, teachers, scholars and artisans, to discuss "The Future of the Past: The Business of Culture Heritage Tourism."
International and local experts led workshops on how to develop cultural heritage tourism in the Virgin Islands. Among the attendees were Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty, Delegate-to-Congress Donna Christensen, and St. Croix administrator Pedro Encarnacion, who represented Governor John deJongh.
By the end of the conference, a strategic plan for cultural heritage tourism was developed. It was submitted in May 2008 to Gov. John deJongh and key stakeholders, including the Department of Tourism, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the Economic Development Authority, the West Indian Company Ltd., the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts and members of the V.I. Legislature.
Conference feedback indicated that the people of St. Croix and Virgin Islanders as a whole want to see cultural heritage tourism pursued.
Travel industry studies show that 81 percent of today's travelers seek an "authentic experience," according to conference keynote speaker Dawn Drew, vice president and publisher of National Geographic Traveler Magazine.
The geo-tourist stays longer and spends more money than the conventional tourist, adding a great financial boost to states such as Virginia and Maryland that have made the preservation of cultural and historic properties essential to their tourism product, added co-conference keynote speaker Donovan Rypkema, president of consulting firm Heritage Strategies International.
We must act now before the landscape is changed dramatically by developers who are more interested in their own financial aggrandizement, Delegate-to-Congress Donna Christensen echoed during the conference.
According to reports of the event, Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson–Doty, who was a conference participant, presenter and cosponsor, said that next year the government would brand the Virgin Islands in a way to differentiate us from other competing destinations and offer travelers the cultural experience they desire.
It is my hope that the plan submitted to the department which we were told was under review in June will be considered for implementation as strategies for a new brand of tourism are launched.
It is evident that a paradigm shift needs to take place with respect to diversifying our approach toward sustainable economic development. Cultural heritage tourism development will enable the Virgin Islands to establish more defined policies, marketing and promotion, education and training, historic preservation, arts and humanities, economic and media plans geared toward development that will make local residents an integral part of tourism; create social cohesiveness, promote the rich culture and heritage of the Virgin Islands and create the great potential for a valuable source of income.
A comprehensive economic strategic plan based on cultural heritage tourism will contextualize the way developers can do business based on defined policies. It will alleviate complications, which as a people we continue to encounter due to lack of clearly defined guidelines and goals for economic and socio-cultural development.
No longer will local business representatives, like Robert deJongh, have to be placed in inept dialogue with legislators who are opposed to "uncontrolled" development. A plan representative of We the People and supported by the executive and legislative branches needs to be in place.
Proceedings from the We the People Cultural Heritage Tourism Conference can be viewed at www.vihcwethepeople2007.org.
The event was one of several council programs aimed at providing opportunities for our diverse population to engage in dialogue and critical thinking, also to formulate ideas and gather factual data that assists with shaping decisions that affect our future.

Editor's note: Mabel J. Maduro is executive director of the Virgin Islands Humanities Council and a native Virgin Islander. Since the 1980s, she has implemented territory-wide tourism training and education initiatives, workforce training and cultural awareness programs designed to strengthen the socioeconomic infrastructure of the Virgin Islands.

Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to visource@gmail.com.

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