Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   January 2004


The Tobago Cays in Crisis

The Tobago Cays are unique in the Caribbean. This little group of islands protected by a horseshoe reef is visually spectacular and holds a magical untouched quality that makes it not only a national treasure but a beauty spot of international fame. Many more people on our planet have heard about the Grenadines, and particularly the Tobago Cays, than have heard about St. Vincent.

As is true in many places in the world where the locals take for granted the world-class attractions "in their own backyard", it is only recently that many Vincentians have come to appreciate and take stock of the true value of their first National Marine Park, the Tobago Cays.

National Park, International Significance
Not only an idyllic getaway for Vincentians, these little islands form a major attraction for bringing visitors to St. Vincent & the Grenadines from all over the world, often via neighboring nations including Grenada, St. Lucia, Barbados and Martinique. So much so, that the Tobago Cays usually feature on brochures put out by tour and yacht charter companies operating in these nearby islands.

It is a shame that the Tobago Cays' fame has developed in such a way that the Cays are probably more appreciated by nationals of many other countries than they are by the people of St. Vincent. Much of this is because many Vincentians have not had a chance to visit the Cays and thereby understand their impact on all the senses. This is something that needs to change. The Tobago Cays belong to every Vincentian, and everyone should see what they own.
It is worth stating at the outset that the Tobago Cays in no way need "improving": they cannot look better than they do now. What is needed is some delicate management that will halt and then reverse some of the ravages upon the land and reefs created by both the locals and the visitors who use them. This loving care needs to incorporate the interests of the current vendors who come and sell in the Cays, the visiting yachts, the day-charter boats and the dive boats. The last thing we need is to build anything on the Cays.
An attempt has been made to get the Cays run as a proper Marine Park, but while a lot of groundwork was done and some good policy decisions made, it somehow did not come to real fruition.

The Cays are now at a point of crisis because the SVG Government clearly wishes to "do something" about them and appears to be in a hurry to appoint new management. One of their options is to accept a proposal from Palm Island Resorts Ltd (PIRL), a for-profit resort management company, acquired in 1999 by Robert A. Barrett. This would involve handing management of the Tobago Cays Marine Park over to PIRL on a 25-year management agreement.
Another proposal has been submitted to Government by the Mayreau Environmental Development Organization (MEDO), a Grenadines-based NGO.
As I write this, I have copies of both the PIRL and the MEDO proposals in front of me, along with an evaluation of the Tobago Cays Marine Park (TCMP) prepared for the government of St. Vincent in May 2002 by the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

PIRL: Qualified to Develop
The PIRL proposal contains only two relevant pages. The first outlines Mr. Barrett's qualifications and describes his environmental record. The first supposed recommendation is that on Palm Island he effected "the transformation of mosquito infested ponds into thriving fish and bird preserves".
The fact that Mr. Barrett extols destroying natural brackish and fresh-water habitats, that happen to contain mosquitoes, by flooding them with seawater shows an extraordinary level of naïveté about the environment that clearly precludes him from any consideration as manager of a Marine Park. Most of his other achievements relate to things like solar heating, sewage systems and hydroponic greenhouses, things that indicate that Mr. Barrett is qualified to do what he has done - develop hotels, not manage parks.
The proposal then goes on to describe the team PIRL could bring in as resources to the TCMP. "Specifically, Mr. Barrett has over 40 years of success in the Caribbean and international marketing and tourism industries. Furthermore, PIRL's proven Management Team includes: certified accountants, attorneys, international marketing and tourism experts, destination management professionals, architects, water craft experts, engineers, decorated former law officials and environmental consultants to name just a few."
The team members that produced the well-manicured and heavily built up Palm Island Resort are hardly the people you need to run a Marine Park.
So much for PIRL's qualifications; now to their proposal's summary, which is a single sheet of paper containing nine paragraphs. (If there is a more complete proposal, I have not seen it.) The first item is:
"To the greatest extent possible, PIRL will manage the TCMP in accordance with the principles set forth in the revised Tobago Cays Management Plan (attached as exhibit 'A')."
What is "to the greatest extent possible" supposed to mean? There is no attempt here to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the revised Tobago Cays Management Plan. Furthermore, I can find no stated goal, except to get Mr. Barrett in charge; no indication of any understanding of the TCMP's problems; no direction and no worthwhile ideas - in fact absolutely nothing that would indicate that Mr. Barrett is in any way competent to even be on the Board of Directors of the Park, let alone be responsible for managing it.
What he promises to do is what he does best - to develop. PIRL proposes to build in the Cays: namely to put up a reception centre, a power-generating windmill, a big dock (for cruise ship launches? Yachties don't mind getting their feet wet!) and ranger houses. Also, as you would expect of a hotelier, he promises to employ people, and supply boats.
The crux is the last paragraph in which he offers to collect user fees, giving only half the profit - "after expenses" - to the St. Vincent & the Grenadines Government, and guarantees to pay the Government at least EC$134,410 the first year, EC$201,615 the second year and EC$268,820 the third year and every year thereafter. In other words, in exchange for long-term control of the Vincentian people's national crown jewel, the pride of not only St. Vincent & the Grenadines but the entire Eastern Caribbean, the Government would only get about US$100,000 a year after the third year. It does allow for more to be paid if profits are larger, but it is unlikely this will happen as PIRL would be entirely in control of what constitutes "expenses", so they could control the level of profit.

While there are no accurate figures, the number of visitors to the Cays per year is probably in the order of 70,000. If each of these were charged a Park entry fee of EC$10, the annual income would be some EC$700,000 (over US$261,000), which rather than being divided with an entrepreneur could go directly to preserving the Cays as a pristine, untouched coral cay environment - a proud treasure for locals and a rare treat for visitors in today's world of increasingly wall-to-wall development (and that includes pseudo "eco"-development).
It is hard to believe that any responsible government could take a proposal like PIRL's seriously. Handing over control of one of your nation's most valuable natural assets to a newcomer (four years in SVG) with no relevant qualifications, to operate for profit, is a sure recipe for disaster. It is also an insult to national self-esteem and moreover, will likely damage the overall economy (what happens when "The Natural Place to Be" has no more natural places?). It runs counter to accepted practice in the Caribbean. Virtually all other highly valued sites are run under the auspices of a non-profit body such as the BVI's National Parks Trust, Bonaire's Island Land and Marine Park Authority, or a qualified NGO. There is considerable funding available for projects like the TCMP from sources such as the OAS, the EU, the OECS's ESDU and NOAA. These could take a burden off the Government by offering very significant funds for start-up. But it is important to note that these organizations will completely wash their hands of the Tobago Cays Marine Park if the "for private profit" model is accepted. A "for-private-profit National Park" would be an international laughing stock.

MEDO: Determined to Protect
By contrast, I find the MEDO proposal touching, as well as more detailed and better thought out. The MEDO group shows a genuine love for the area - surely a prerequisite for the protective management style required. Residents of Mayreau are clearly very much affected by what happens in the Tobago Cays, as Mayreau sits on the edge of the Park. MEDO is a hundred times more qualified to manage this sensitive environmental area than PIRL: in addition to their families' generations of experience in the Cays, they have in recent years brought in overseas guest lecturers on tourism and the environment, attended relevant regional workshops and visited St. Lucia's SMMA Marine Park on a fact-finding mission. MEDO's proposal shows that they understand many of the Park's current problems, and that they have some specific ideas which should certainly be part of the solution.
MEDO do not have a complete grasp however, as they do not really know where to go with the vendor issue and one of their main proposals is to put in yacht moorings to "protect the reef" - a completely unnecessary expense as yachts do not anchor on the reef (dinghy moorings for snorkellers are another story), and the sand is some of the best holding in the Caribbean.
MEDO sat as an NGO on the last TCMP Board, and if nothing else they should be on the next. If the Government want to wash their hands of the work of running the TCMP, handing the whole thing over to MEDO would be far better than handing it to PIRL.

Where Do Groups Fit?
One confusing point arising from these proposals is where a group such as PIRL or MEDO would fit in. The structure of TCMP involves a Board of Directors who set policy and tell a manager what to do; the manager actually runs the Park and hires the rangers and other staff. Having the management be run by a group means we then in effect have two managers - the manager person and the management group. There may be some advantages to this, as if one manager person did not work out, the management group might be able to make a replacement without reference to the Board, who would deal with the group as "the manager".
A Professional Document
The third relevant document is an evaluation of the Tobago Cays National Marine Park done at the request of the SVG Government by ECLAC with the assistance of Tom van't Hof, as part of the Dutch-funded project "Development of a Regional Marine-based Tourism Strategy". This is a professional document. It shows a clear understanding of the TCMP, its problems and possible solutions, along with the changes in legislation necessary to make it work.
The document has only two obvious problems that I can see, both solvable, and the question of how to get the Park going needs to be addressed.
The first problem is that Tom van't Hof sees the TCMP as a non-profit entity with all funds going to the park authority, while the SVG Government clearly wants to make money from the Park.

Any government's need for revenue is understandable. As a first step, SVG should enforce the requirement that vessels visiting the Tobago Cays clear into the country first. Right now, it is an accepted fact than many visiting yachts don't bother to clear in. Park officials could be authorized to check yachts' documents to make sure they have cleared in and paid their "head tax". If completing clearance formalities into SVG and paying the average fee of EC$35 per person were a requirement for yachts being allowed to visit the Tobago Cays, and as the vast majority of yacht visitors wish to visit the Cays, this alone will bring in considerable funds.
If the SVG Government needs yet more revenue, maybe it could be structured thus: if we assume a park fee of US$5, collected by park officials, maybe $3 could be the Park entry fee and go to the non-profit park, and $2 could be something like an "environmental tax" that goes to the Government. This would bring them in an estimated US$140,000 per year - far more than offered by PIRL. It would also leave the Park authority free to seek grants as a non-profit entity.
The second problem I see is that Tom suggests amending Article 8 of the Maine Parks Regulation of 1998, with respect to unsupervised diving: "Amend this article to allow supervised diving only". My problem with this is when such a measure was taken in Saba, the number of visiting yachts dropped by some 40 percent. Decisions about diving should only be made with the interested parties, including the charter companies. What makes more sense is to allow the Board to control and/or stop independent diving only in such zones within the Park as they feel necessary. This allows the Park to protect places like Mayreau Gardens where it is better for people go with a dive shop, and allow unsupervised divers to enjoy other zones designated for them.

One Short Step
Much of the groundwork for a proper park has been accomplished. We are only a short step from a park that is environmentally protected, locally run, and a financial benefit rather than a strain. As a matter of immediate priority, the ECLAC study's recommendations need to be reviewed and the legal amendments taken care of.
Then an experienced Marine Park professional should be brought in for about three months to get the TCMP up and running. There are two really good ones in the Caribbean. Tom van't Hof is one and Kai Wulf of the SMMA is another. I imagine either would be willing. Kai Wulf would be an excellent choice because being in St. Lucia he is closer (Tom is based in Saba), and is that much more familiar with Windward Islands issues and people.
Given that the Tobago Cays Marine Park is this close to success, it seems especially sad that the whole thing may be handed over to long-term control by an unqualified, overseas-based individual and his "team". There are Vincentians capable of managing the nation's hospitals, schools and Government Ministries; surely there are Vincentians capable of managing the nation's Marine Park.

Things are happening fast. If you care about this issue, now is the time for action. There are petitions now being circulated by a non-partisan group in St. Vincent called Friends of the Tobago Cays, which you can sign, or you can write your own letters about the Tobago Cays to Compass or to the Prime Minister of St. Vincent & the Grenadines:

The Right Honorable Dr. Ralph Gonsalves
Prime Minster's Office
St. Vincent & the Grenadines

From a sailing family in England, Chris Doyle earned a Doctorate in Psychology before sailing to the Caribbean in 1969 and becoming a resident of Grenada. He is the author of the Sailor's Guide to the Windward Islands, now in its 11th edition, and several other regional guide books. Visit his website at


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