SOUFRIERE MOD­ELS COM­MU­NITY TOURISM

The Soufriere Re­gional De­vel­op­ment Foun­da­tion (SRDF) chan­nels tourism rev­enue into grass­roots causes

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY CATHER­INE MOR­RIS, STAR BUSINESSWEEK COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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.”

NAT­U­RAL AS­SETS

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.”

FU­TURE PROJECTS

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

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