SOUFRIERE MODELS COMMUNITY TOURISM
The Soufriere Regional Development Foundation (SRDF) channels tourism revenue into grassroots causes
Nestled in the shade of the towering Piton mountains and fronted by a picturesque island harbour, Soufriere is one of Saint Lucia’s most beautiful (and most visited) spots. But beneath the idyllic veneer, this is a community that has seen hard times.
Once Saint Lucia’s capital, Soufriere is now the second most impoverished district in the country — buffeted by natural disasters, a waning agricultural industry and development elsewhere on the island. “The development of the north meant a lot of people moved out. There was a very heavy brain drain,” says Franklin Solomon, General Manager of the Soufriere Regional Development Foundation (SRDF). “We found ourselves lagging behind Vieux Fort and Castries. The people who were not able to move to more affluent parts of the island stayed behind.”
Those left behind got busy. In the 1970s the area turned to tourism to revive its flagging economy, leveraging its proximity to attractions such as the rainforest, Piton hiking trails and volcanic springs. It was truly a town effort, and Soufriere is fast becoming a model of community-centred tourism that puts people, and the natural environment, at the heart of its economic development.
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
Spearheading this push for inclusive tourism is the SRDF, a non-profit organisation which channels revenue from tourism into promoting and supporting local development initiatives. The history of the SRDF can be traced back over 30 years to the foundation’s original incarnation - the Soufriere Development Programme (SDP). Formed by a group of community leaders, the SDP set itself the ambitious goal of developing a profitable tourism industry which would not only benefit the community but also protect the environment.
Its mission energised the local community, many of whom were eager to come onboard. In the early nineties stakeholders realised the SDP had outgrown its remit and needed to be revamped and rehauled into a bigger, more inclusive, organisation. The SRDF was formally created in January 1993. Today the Foundation is responsible for the area’s biggest tourist draws — the Gros Piton Nature Trail, the Soufriere jetties and the Sulphur Springs Park, which attract around 200,000 visitors each year.
The bulk of the SRDF’s revenue comes from these sites and, in 2017, the organisation’s budget was $2.5 million.
This money is plugged directly back into the community — funding school bursaries, college scholarships, youth sports initiatives, and healthcare. The SRDF donates around $200,000 to community causes every year. It provides a $1,000 bonus to staff members with a child in secondary school to help meet the cost of their education, and allocates around $150,000 to help underprivileged young people progress to tertiary education.
The remainder of the Foundation’s resources go towards operating costs, maintaining and developing its facilities and upgrading infrastructure around Soufriere. “We use the assets we are managing to support the community,” says Solomon. “This is the primary reason for SRDF. We did it because we know the people who reside here are in need. We understand the dynamics of this community. We are well placed to help nurture and develop where necessary.”
Solomon is Soufriere born and bred. Proud of his roots, he says the area has a strong entrepreneurial spirit and people have been quick to rise to the challenge of building a successful tourism industry. “There is a real awareness and development of the tourism product in Soufriere. One of the things we recognise is the needs and demands of the visitor,” says Solomon who believes that Soufriere’s two greatest assets are its people and its environment — in particular the Pitons, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
“One of the biggest challenges in tourism is competition. We are not the only Caribbean island; one could easily conclude that the islands are more or less the same in terms of what they offer — beaches, sunshine, waterfalls. We are grateful that we have the competitive advantage of the world heritage site. The Sulphur Springs Park and the Pitons are what makes Saint Lucia. They are a must-see and that is a huge plus for us. We also have very warm, very friendly people; people who are receptive to tourists. This is something every visitor speaks about.”
Community tourism is more than just a trendy term for the SRDF. It’s a sustainable model of growth that ensures benefits pool at the grassroots level. Solomon would like to see it being used more widely but says big brands and international operators often crowd out small, local providers. “In a nutshell, community tourism is where the dollar from the tourist or visitor stays here and the community sees the benefits. Everybody should be doing this but the reality is that the people with the finance continue to be the people with the power.”
In Soufriere, tourism is a group effort that encompasses small business owners, bed and breakfast operators, taxi drivers, tour guides and artisans selling their handcrafted products to guests. Today’s travellers are looking for immersive cultural experiences, and the town is happy to meet that need. Solomon says: “The everyday tourist does
not want to be stuck in a hotel, in that controlled setting; they want to come down into town and really mingle with the locals. They go to the same places that locals go, they visit the same beaches, they go to street parties. They mingle a lot more than in years gone by.”
The SRDF has exciting plans in the pipeline, starting with the $1.5 million redevelopment of Hummingbird Beach which Solomon terms “a huge project”.
The beach area is being overhauled and upgraded with support from the Embassy of Taiwan and is due to open by the end of the year. When finished it will feature beach bars, lounge chairs, booths and restaurants.
Another key initiative for the Foundation is making the Sulphur Springs Park “bigger and better”. The important volcanic site will be upgraded to provide “world class” spa services that capitalise on the therapeutic qualities of its water and mud. The organisation is also focusing on the Pitons. While the larger mountain is well-traversed by eco-tourists and nature lovers, the smaller peak is steeper and harder to climb. The SRDF wants to give visitors and locals a chance to experience Petit Piton and is currently working on a proposal to begin tours on its slopes, looking at ways to make the trails safe and provide the necessary facilities for hikers and staff.
It’s an ambitious agenda but Solomon says the hard work and effort involved is worth it. “It is very exciting. You feel like you are really part of change.” He adds that his current position is hugely rewarding and he is honoured to be a part of SRDF’s efforts in his hometown. “The best thing is the ability and opportunity I have to improve and direct not just individuals but an entire community. I’m very grateful for where life has taken me.” As he celebrates his sixth year with the organisation, Solomon’s one regret is that the Foundation cannot do more. “The challenging thing is the extent to which the entire community depends on this organisation for support. That is a huge responsibility. We cannot help everyone. The biggest challenge is our limited resources.”
He believes that stepping up marketing efforts to draw in more tourists from markets such as Canada, the UK and
Europe will help keep the funds flowing and is optimistic about the Foundation’s future saying: “I really believe that this organisation is fully sustainable. It is a business entity with longevity. We are extremely grounded and we understand the dynamics of this community. We strive to touch and impact lives in many different ways. People see the Foundation as the godparent of the community.”
The SRDF is directed by a Board of Directors and headed by General Manager Franklin Solomon, pictured with (starting top L-R) Antonius Alexis (Director); Uranus Alexander (Director); Methodius Claircin (Director); Michael Gustave (Chairperson); Darnell Bobb (Director); Raphael Felix (Director); Joan Hippolyte (Company Secretary); Valerie Saltibus (Deputy Chairperson); Anthony Barnard (Director)
The SRDF is implementing an expansion and rehabilitation project of the iconic Soufriere sulphur mud baths in an effort to increase the number of pools available to patrons and the introduction of wellness services such as massages