Saturday, September 28, 2013

Role of the Countrystyle Community Tourism Network and Villages as Businesses in Jamaica

Diana McIntyre-Pike, Founder and President of the Countrystyle Community Tourism Network

Diana McIntyre-Pike realized, as she was building her model of community tourism in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean, that there was a need for an organization to serve as a liaison between the visitor and the community, hence Countrystyle Community Tourism Network (CCTN) was born as a nongovernmental organization bringing together the various groups that participate in the tours. This group is designed as a membership organization. Likewise, Diana created a for-profit corporation called Villages as Businesses (VAB) to manage the contracts with the groups, a part of the project still in development. 

What Diana wants readers to know is that the combined efforts of CCTN and VAB will create what she calls "an efficient destination management organization to design the community experience tours." She adds that this organization will distinguish itself by "bearing in mind the clients' interests and budget and also making changes as required by the clients. CCTN with VAB will be providing business development support, marketing support and training support at discounted rates [to the communities] since they are members of CCTN.The network integrates the activities of the tour operators and attractions with the logistics piece. Other roles that the combined organizations will fulfill will be "responding to any emergencies and special requests...and dealing with any problems that may occur in a community." 

Any business that wants to grow has to become increasingly specialized in certain areas. For example, a business may hire individuals to handle sales and the ongoing relationship with clients. The workers in the "back room" are focused on creating the product and shipping it, and don't have the time to handle client relationships and drive sales at the same time. Likewise, CCTN and VAB fulfill this go-between function, and have an enormous amount of credibility with the villages, accommodations and tour operators that form part of the network.

CCTN/VAB also play a vital role as advocate for the community, which cannot be overemphasized. Diana notes that CCTN/VAB act as a "'go between' with organizations like Sandals Resorts, Island Routes, and other local and international tour companies and travel agents." Yet this role, while being vital for keeping the whole operation functioning, is the area that tends to be overlooked because it is so seamless and invisible to the client as well as to internal stakeholders such as foundations or government agencies. One essential component of advocacy which I have experienced firsthand, is CCTN and VAB "sticking their foot in the door." Communities often encounter considerable obstacles when dealing with government agencies or funders, due to the uneven power relationship which favors those who control the allocation of resources. Diana and her collaborators have fought hard to gain a fair hearing for sustainable tourism projects, but always insist that those who would oppose unsustainable programs not just criticize but also offer viable alternatives. This is where the truly hard work of advocacy comes in. 

When it comes to politics and especially dividing up the spoils of politics - wealth, influence and hegemony, those who would seek to retain these for themselves and their associates have to create some type of noise to destroy the credibility of a legitimate alternative. If this activity is allowed to be unchecked, politics, economy and the social fabric acquire a dysfunctional nature. The best approach to counter this tendency is to stick to logic, hard evidence and the legitimate rule of law to gain public support for valid ideas, which are more difficult to ignore once their worth has been proven and the public base becomes convinced of the resultant benefits to society. For me, it is exciting to witness the growth of this grass roots initiative to develop a sustainable economic model and channel the enormous power of a well-designed tourism product to go beyond providing leisure and truly create good will between people.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My favorite Caribbean beaches

For a beach to rate among my favorites, it usually has to have powdery white sand, calm blue or bluish-green waters that I can float in, and a beautiful setting. If it doesn't have one of these characteristics, it can have some other factor that compensates for not having one of the others. I consider myself very fortunate to have enjoyed a number of these, and it's hard to pick an all-time favorite. All of the Caribbean beaches I highlight here have something special to offer.

Playa Flamenco (Flamenco Beach), on the small island of Culebra, which lies to the east of the main island of Puerto Rico, has a dramatic crescent-shaped white-sand beach. Culebra is accessible by ferry from Fajardo, or you can brave a small prop plane from San Juan - the way I decided to go. The waves, at least when I was there, were not conducive to floating, but the panoramic view is incredible, and as there is only one small hotel along the whole crescent, the location is as unspoiled looking as can be expected in our day and age. The sticks in the first picture formed an enclosure where sea turtle eggs were protected.
Playa Flamenco, Culebra, Puerto Rico, with sea turtle egg enclosure
Another view of Playa Flamenco, Culebra, Puerto Rico

Pink Sands Beach, on Harbour Island (near Eleuthera) in the Bahamas, has the edge over Playa Flamenco in terms of the calmness of the water, though it doesn't have the dramatic crescent shape that Playa Flamenco has. However, the hues that the pinkish sand and the water form are remarkable. There are a few entrances to the beach but my favorite is between the Pink Sands Resort and the Coral Sands Resort. As you walk down the short hill through lush vegetation, the beautiful beach opens up before your eyes. There are a string of low-key, but expensive, properties that sit on this hill overlooking the beach. (Think location, location, location!) If the accommodations are out of your price range, you can take a day ferry to Harbour Island from Nassau.
Pink Sands Beach, Harbour Island, Bahamas
Pink Sands Resort overlooks the beautiful Pink Sands Beach on Harbour Island

Grace Bay Beach, on Provo in the Turks and Caicos Islands, is 12 miles long and also forms a nice crescent. The waters are calm and relaxing, and diving options are available. In spite of the development along its shores, the beach is clean and the water is clear. While at this beach, I heard someone say that she felt that she "died and went to heaven." This view is from the Beaches Turks and Caicos resort.

Grace Bay Beach, Provo, Turks and Caicos Islands

Boquerón, also known as Cabo Rojo, is on the southwest corner of Puerto Rico. It is one of the eleven "balnearios" or public beaches on the island and has changing facilities close by. You're a short drive away from town and the view of the palm trees behind the beach is very nice.

Boquerón, Puerto Rico
Sandals Montego Bay in Jamaica has its own private beach, and what makes it a winner is having the accommodations and the food (especially the pizza!) in close proximity. The waters are definitely calm and good for relaxing. Couples take advantage of the romantic setting to reconnect. Even if you're staying at Sandals Carlyle or Sandals Royal Caribbean, you can take a shuttle to this resort and take advantage of the beach and other amenities.
Sandals Montego Bay, Jamaica

The beaches at South West Bay and Fresh Water Bay, in Providencia, a small island which is part of Colombia, don't have the prettiest sand, but they both have the huge advantage of being on an island that sees very little tourism and seems to exist in another dimension - a truly special place. In fact, when I speak about it to people, many of them don't seem to know of its existence. Add to the fact that you have to take two flights, or one flight and a catamaran, from Bogotá to get there, and it is likely that Providencia will remain tranquil.

South West Bay (Bahía Suroeste), Providencia, Colombia

Fresh Water Bay (Bahía Aguadulce), Providencia, Colombia

You can take a one-hour boat ride from Cartagena, Colombia to the area of 26 small islands called Islas del Rosario. We spent the day on this small beach located on an island in the chain called "La Media Naranja". The waters closest to the shore are crystal clear, and gradually deepen in color. We took a tour where a fresh fish dish was included for lunch.

Islas del Rosario, Colombia
Store Bay in Tobago is a small beach, but it has the added advantages of being walking distance from the airport and the jump-off point for the glass-bottom boats that take you to Buccoo Reef. Tobago is a short hop by air from Trinidad. Tobago is at the southern end of the Eastern Caribbean chain and suffers less from hurricane damage than its neighbors further north. This is another laid-back destination, and one of the locals came up to me to give me good advice, when it was clear that he had nothing to gain personally, and he was just being friendly and helpful.

Store Bay, Tobago

Cabbage Beach, also known as Paradise Beach, is on Paradise Island, Bahamas and easy walking distance from the Atlantis complex. There are waves, so it's not a gentle floating beach, but the nice white sand and the convenience more than make up for that. Atlantis, of course, has a wide variety of activities. There are two smaller beaches to the west of this one, also bordering Atlantis.
Cabbage Beach (aka Paradise Beach), Paradise Island, Bahamas

Shoal Bay in Anguilla has blindingly white sand and striking blue waters - it seems too good to be true.  The island itself is flat and scrubby, highlighting the fact that the true headliner is the shoreline. Anguilla is low-key and its accommodations are on the high end in terms of price. I found the people to be extremely friendly. As one islander put it, "Here on the island, we are all as one." To get to Anguilla, it's best to fly to St. Martin/St. Maarten and take the short ferry from Marigot, on the French side. Remember that crossing over to Anguilla is visiting another country, as it belongs to the UK, and you'll be asked to show your passport.

Shoal Bay Beach, Anguilla

Johnny Key, a short boat ride from San Andrés, in Colombia, has nice sand but very rough waters, which don't prevent people from attempting to swim in it. The rough water, though, is a gorgeous aquamarine color, probably the prettiest color I've seen anywhere. This is a very popular excursion, and you usually will pay one price for both the boat ride and a lunch of fresh fish.
Johnny Key, San Andrés, Colombia
Great Bay Beach in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island shared between the Netherlands and France, was really busy when the cruise ships pulled in. I would go there early in the morning and float in the water, avoiding the midday crowds. This beach has the advantage of being conveniently located close to the restaurants and duty-free shops, though return visitors often will speak more highly of other beaches on the island. Still, because of the convenience, I found myself coming back here. This view of Great Bay was taken near Fort Willem, on a hill overlooking the bay.
Great Bay, St. Maarten

It would be difficult to argue that Negril, Jamaica does not have all that one needs to relax on the beach and in the water. For all its laid-back nature, its delights are well-organized for the visitor. Plenty of eating options, activities limited only by one's budget, and a wide variety of accommodations. Vendors can be persistent at times, but a local's advice to be polite but firm will take care of almost all situations. I didn't experience any major hassle from them, and my stay there was very enjoyable.

Seven Mile Beach in Negril, Jamaica
The Treasure Beach area in southern Jamaica has neither white sand nor calm waters, but there is something incredible about the surroundings that defies description. An air of tranquility blankets the entire region, beckoning you to relax, and resistance to its charms is futile. I allowed Treasure Beach work its magic on me as I walked the surroundings at the Treasure Beach Hotel and its lovely gardens, then stepped down to the beach to take a walk and watch the crashing waves. Actually, the sound of the waves is an integral part of the relaxation experience. There are other accommodations in the area, such as Jake's Place, Sunset Resort, Taino Cove and Marblue, that will likewise take you on the same relaxing journey.

View of Calabash Bay from the Treasure Beach Hotel, Jamaica

Conclusions? I found myself relaxing at all of these beaches at one time or another. I could go back to any one of them and feel content. There were other Caribbean beaches not mentioned here that were also nice. Decide for yourself what you want most. Do you want a place that's convenient and has many options of things to do and places to eat? Or is a quiet place without these frills most appealing to you? You'll be sure to find a beach that suits your needs.