Montserrat Relaxation Refined!
It evokes images of a calm relaxing island vacation, with amazing beaches, world-class hotels, spas, quality dining and a seamless travel experience. The trouble is that is not what Montserrat is. None of this comes to mind when people think about Montserrat.
I tell someone that I am from Montserrat; they ask me, "Isn't that where the volcano is?" That is who we are. At least that is what people think that we are. That is what made us famous, or infamous depending on your point of view. At least now I no longer get asked, "Is that in Trinidad?"
Montserrat has an identity. And it certainly is not "relaxation refined." Yet it keeps trying to be a duckling among ducks even after it found out it is really a swan. Instead of growing up to be a beautiful swan we still insist on competing with the other ducklings. What it needs to be doing is to differentiate itself as the only swan in the pond.
Montserrat tourism is being marketed as something that it is not and it is hurting the development of the tourism industry. The Island continues to face challenges that the other destinations have never had to deal with. Those challenges cannot be easily overcome. Montserrat cannot compete on the same level with St. Thomas, Antigua, The Dominican Republic, or Anguilla. So we have to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. But first we must accept what we are, figure out those challenges and overcome them.
The biggest, most obvious challenge is that the active volcano roaring its head often enough to render more than half of the island off limits. Fortunately, having a live volcano can be turned into our greatest asset as well. Remember, prior to the eruption most of the world had no idea that Montserrat existed. Now, suddenly the little island in the middle of the Caribbean archipelago was all over the news. Montserrat is suddenly relevant. Montserrat was suddenly interesting. Sadly, we are coming very close to blowing the opportunity to exploit this newly found fame to our advantage.
I recently read an article entitled "5 Volcanoes You Must Visit." Soufriere Hills, Montserrat was listed 4th on this list ahead of Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland (The infamous volcano that shut down transatlantic air travel a few summers ago). The unfortunate takeaway from the article for Montserrat was; "Not only has this left half the island inhospitable, visits to it are also limited since they fall under the Exclusion Zone (too dangerous to visit)." Not very encouraging huh?
The truth is, there are people in this world who seek out adventures like what we can potentially offer. They look to strap on a backpack and hike up to the foot of a volcano just for the fun of it. There are people willing to pay good money to walk on top of the buried city of an old colonial town with the steeple of the Methodist church sticking up through the pyroclastic deposit. St Lucia advertises their volcano as the world's only drive-in volcano. Montserrat's volcano has so much more to offer that that'if it is packaged correctly. If we can remove the stigma of inhospitably and danger.
The Second major Challenge to the development of a viable tourism industry in Montserrat is transportation.
Montserrat lacks a consistent and reliable transportation system in and out of the island. You cannot sell a refined relaxation if the first part of your journey is a harrowing flight in a tiny airplane that lands on a airstrip that is barely longer than a personal driveway. How about a two-hour ride on a ferry barely bigger than a dinghy in open waters?
Again, this can be overcome by controlling expectations. If a visitor is expecting relaxation, they would not find it in a Britten Norman Islander landing on an eighteen hundred foot runway on a hillside. On the other hand, if visitors come expecting adventure then the tiny airplane they board in Antigua becomes part of the adventure. Now what you have is an adventurous vacation starting in Antigua. Within minutes of your journey you will be able to see the most amazing views of a live volcano you will ever see. Then within minutes of landing you can be hiking at the foot of the volcano ...or snorkeling in the waters beneath on the world's most active volcano.
One minister of government once suggested that we make Montserrat into a golfing destination. Among the most obvious problem of locating enough flat land on the island to place a fairway there was the problem posed by the aviation limitations. With an eighteen hundred feet runway, it is close to impossible to get in with full passenger load plus luggage on a normal day, much less passengers each with a full set of golf clubs. Again the image a swan trying to be a duck among ducks comes to mind.
Next challenge'competition. The Eastern Caribbean has several Islands with well-developed tourist industries based on the "tropical Island" vacation ideal. There are the emerging destinations with their own niches, Anguilla, Saba, etc attracting the high-end celebrity visitors. And then there is Montserrat; the little Island that has been punched in the gut a few times by Mother Nature trying hard to catch up. Trying to compete with the big boys.
Here is my suggestion. Don't. Do not compete with the big boys. We cannot compete on their level. What we need to do is to first of all find our own identity, understand our market and develop it. Stop trying to be the ugly duckling in a pond of duckling when you could be a beautiful swan.
Low hanging Fruit
A unique market was created after the volcano erupted and all those Montserratians left for the UK, United States and other countries. Most of those people have permanently planted roots. They are not coming back. But even though they have made their lives somewhere else, Montserrat will always be home. They will always come back home as long as they feel that they are wanted. That is your tourist market. I am willing to bet that the numbers support that. Most visitors to Montserrat are people who have been displaced by the volcano.
Then there are the children of the Diaspora. These are people who left the island as children and now will be returning on their own for the first time. Or children born to Montserratian parents abroad and will be visiting their parent's homeland for their first time. This is a demographic that is usually ignored by the marketers. But that is a big mistake. These are the low hanging fruits in tourist marketing. Montserrat has a greater percentage of its citizens in the Diaspora that any other island. We can compete with any other island for our own people. They are willing to face the challenges of travel for love of country.
The other set of low hanging fruit is this. Pilfer. Let Antigua, St Kitts, and Guadeloupe do the heavy lifting. Let them get the tourists from the USA and Europe. Then market day trips and excursions to your active volcano and Modern-day Pompeii. Pilfer their tourist dollars without having to spend money marketing in huge international markets for little return.
A few people already get it. Scriber's Adventures takes advantage the natural resources afforded by the volcanic island. There are several other micro industries that can be developed if Montserrat look within itself and see who it is rather that trying to be something else. Take advantage of the unique assets. Turn its challenges into opportunities. But most of all stop trying to be what it is not.
An example: Montserrat has a plethora of rum shops. We can choose to condemn this as what is wrong with our society. Or we can sell this as part of our culture and island charm. A rum shop is a place to come out and spend an exciting evening, playing dominoes, watching cricket on a big screen, and sampling Montserrat's unique Rum-shop blend Rum Punch. There is no such thing? Well isn't that an opportunity for an enterprising bartender to develop?
Another Example: Tours into the exclusion zone. Each person who enters must have a permit ($10.00 each.) And each visitor must be accompanied by an authorized tour guide. That is guaranteed revenue for the Government and a whole new industry of tour guides.
Montserrat is in the unique position to rebuild and redefine itself. But we have to be careful of misbranding ourselves and not being able to deliver on that brand. We could be "relaxation refined." Or we could be what we really are. A tiny Island with an active volcano to explore, beautiful waters to navigate, jaw dropping views and the most amazing people who, once a year throw one of the greatest festival celebration anywhere.
You have to know who you are before you can define who you want to be.
Editor-in-Chief's Note: Theo Semper is an Editorial Contributor with MNI Alive