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Fieldwork in the Dutch Caribbean: Developing sustainable tourism on St Eustatius

For my thesis (Ineke) and for the experience (Mart), we went to the small and quite unknown Caribbean island, St Eustatius (Statia). We spent five weeks exploring the possibilities for sustainable tourism development on the island and creating different spatial scenarios that we presented to the inhabitants of Statia.

The Caribbean are a well-known island group in the Atlantic Ocean. Everybody knows the images of white sandy beaches, palm trees and big cruise ships. Especially Saint Martin and Curacao are favourite holiday destinations. But the Caribbean possess an entirely different sight as well. Between Saba and St Kitts lies a small island: Saint Eustatius (21 km2), or Statia as it is called by the inhabitants of the island. For those of you who don’t know where Saba and St Kitts lie; the Windward islands. Together with Saba and Bonaire, Statia is a special municipality of the Netherlands since 10-10-2010. Because of this constitutional change, currently a lot of research is done on these islands.

‘Sustainable’ tourism on Statia One of these research projects is the TripleP@Sea project, a project of Wageningen UR, where the use of marine ecosystem services in three different marine environments is researched. One of these environments is the Dutch Caribbean, where tourism is identified as one of these ecosystem services (Wageningen UR, 2015). Within the context of this program, a master plan for sustainable tourism will be developed for Statia. We belonged to a small group of students who contribute to this project. Our job as landscape architects was to explore and visualise the possibilities for sustainable tourism development on the island. The Government of Statia harbours the ambition to develop tourism in a sustainable way as ’the’ economic pillar of the island (Hoogeboezem-Lanschot, 2010). From many years of studying at Wageningen University we know that a certain amount of cautiousness should be taken when using the word ‘sustainability’. There are many definitions and criteria present to describe the word ‘sustainable’. It was our job to figure out what this term means for tourism developments on the island.

“Fort Oranje”

For this job we were stationed in the beautiful Fort Oranje, an 18th century defence fortress from the heydays of the West Indian Company. In these days Statia was one of the most important trade centres in the world, with more than 10,000 inhabitants, in contrast to the 4000 people living on the island today. The cannons on the thick wall of the Fort made it into a very safe working environment for us. But these were not the only things that graced the wall. On a regular basis goats, cows, and chickens could be seen walking over the city wall and cliff. A comical sight, but in truth the reason for major erosion problems on the island.

In the first few days on the island we encountered many other problems as well, but for now we decided to focus on the question of tourism development. There is only one way to get to Statia; on average daily basis 6 planes of 20 people fly from St Martin to Statia. The few tourists who visit Statia come here to dive; the underwater world of Statia is one of absolute beauty, something Ineke decided to experience first-hand by getting her diving license. But even just by snorkelling in front of the coast you can see turtles, barracudas and a broad array of fish. However, besides diving very few tourists visit the island, which seems to be the story of the chicken and the egg. Are there so little tourists because there are so little and expensive flights? Or are there so little flights because there are not enough tourists? Assuming that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, we decided that the best course of action was to explore the island thoroughly and form our own image of Statia.

Caribbean fieldwork The first thing we did is hike up the Quill, a 600 m high (inactive) volcano that forms about a third of the island. A very special experience, the crater is covered with a tropical rainforest that you can enter from the crater rim and ascend via some ropes. Walking in this depth between gigantic tropical trees and being surrounded by the noise of chickens (because yes, there are even chickens in the crater) is a truly unique experience. Another very beautiful natural park can be found on the other side of the island. This area is a lot more open than the dense forest on the Quill and harbours many hiking trails that lead to the different hilltops. Across the entire island many historical relics can be found. Sometimes you literally stumble across gun barrels and ruins, each with another special story attached to it. This led us to the conclusion that Statia is the perfect island to ‘explore’. It has a lot of hidden treasures and the small size and landscape diversity make it possible to get a lot of different experiences in a couple of days. The only problem is the absence of transportation for tourists. This made us come up with a very simple proposal: give tourists the opportunity to rent a mountain bike. It would make the island a lot more ‘explorable’.

Fieldwork Mart

Fieldwork Ineke

Involving the community

Next to our own vision for the island, our aim was to figure out what ambitions for (sustainable) tourism development there are and what kind of developments the people Statia would like to see on their island. A broad range of ambitions were already mentioned in government documents, varying from hotels, spas, golf courses and eco-developments. By interviewing some key people and by talking to people on the street we got a good overview of the broad range of ambitions and wishes regarding tourism, that are present on Statia.

Our next challenge was to translate all these ambitions and ideas into spatial scenarios that show the possibilities and effects of these developments. We wanted to show the people on Statia what the spatial result of their wishes was and to ask them if that was what they had in mind. If someone mentioned he wanted cruise ships to come to the island, we wanted to show him what it would look like and ask: ‘is this really what you want?’ Words can be miss-interpreted easily, but a picture often speaks for itself. Our biggest challenge, however, during our time on the island was how to actually get the community involved. In contrast to the Dutch, Statians are not really interested in coming to a meeting or workshop and give their opinion. Our idea to organise a workshop was therefore discouraged to us by everybody. We decided to take a different course and organise a more low-key meeting, in the form of a walk-in exposition in the public library. For this exposition we have been photoshopping for days and days in a row, with the goal to visualise a great diversity of possible tourism developments on Statia. The results were presented at the end of our stay during the exposition in the library, for which the entire island was invited by means of TV, local radio, local newspaper and invitations on every corner of the street. To our great surprise around 30 people showed up, and unrivalled high number for Statian terms, although many people were actually expats.

Walk-in exposition

The people that showed up were given post-its, a pen and an assignment: ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ the presented images and write down your comments and thoughts on the images that do or don’t appeal to you. It turned out to be a successful method to get people to give their opinion and also to get more clear why certain scenarios were liked or disliked. Interesting to notice where the differences in opinion, especially between the expats (mainly Europeans) and ‘local Statians’. The regular Statian turned out to be a lot more open towards the different proposed developments that the average European. A visualisation of a golf course on the island was dubbed by most expats as ‘non-sustainable’, ‘uses too much water’, ‘not ecological’, ‘can’t go together with the protection of the turtles’ and ‘not the right kind of tourists’. However, Statian comments were more in line of ‘we have enough water’, ‘if it draws tourists to the island, let’s do it!’, ‘looks nice’, ‘could help with the protection of turtles’. A visualisation of cruise ships at the port of Statia made all the Westerners write comments like ‘it makes me throw up in my mouth’. Many Statians shared this opinion, but there were also people who said ‘let them come as long as it brings something to the island’. The idea of what is sustainable and desirable for Statia turns out to be very divers.

Cruiseschip panorama now

Cruiseship panorama future

Continue the research! The results of the exposition, together with our own field research will form the basis for a design for tourism developments in a part of Statia. This will be part of the Masterplan for sustainable tourism that will be presented to the tourism bureau of Statia by the end of 2015. What we especially noticed during our 5 weeks on Statia are the many possible research topics we encountered. Not only for landscape architects, but also for other (Wageningen) researchers. For Landscape architects specifically we see a real challenge in getting the community involved. This proved to be very difficult, but will be necessary for the ‘sustainable’ development of tourism on the island. Without people who support the plans and take initiative for developments, nothing will happen on this island. We would therefore invite other students who are interested to continue with this research. If you can deal with the slower Caribbean pace and an average temperature of 28° C, Statia is the perfect place for a thesis or other project.

For more information about possibilities for a project on Statia contact Rene Henkens ( or Marlies Brinkhuijsen (


Wageningen UR (2015). TripleP@Sea- Coastal and Marine resources. Visited on 19-01-2015 via Hoogenboezem-Lanslots, K.M.A., Schenau Y.M., Leeuwen, R. J. van, Briene, M.F.M. &Freitas MBA J.A. de, (2010). Sint Eustatius Strategic Development plan. Rotterdam: RBOI

Januari 22, 2015

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