Tourism is making inroads in the multi-island country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a string of 32 islands in the southern Caribbean, but progress and direction are being carefully monitored, lest mistakes be made.

Glen Beache, minister of tourism, youth and sports, described the destination as "the Caribbean of 40 years ago."

"This is important to who and what we are," he said. "Tourism is growing, and Vincentians will have to decide if we want mass tourism or to stay the way we are."

Wheels already have been set in motion to upgrade the tourist product. The $178 million Argyle Airport, slated to debut on St. Vincent in 2011, would effectively open up the country to large jets and nonstop flights from U.S. gateways.

The current E. T. Joshua Airport is being improved to handle additional turboprop traffic from neighboring islands.

The airport on Canouan Island recently completed a $15.5 million expansion to handle private jets and larger, scheduled aircraft. Canouan is home to Raffles Resort, the Trump International Golf Club, the soon-to-come Trump villas and a 100-room high-end resort opening in two years.

"Easy airline access to our country is very important, especially for the large Caribbean market, and specifically the Vincentian diaspora outside the country, who play a significant role in promoting our small nation," Beache said.

On the ecotourism side, the destination's Tourism Development Initiative is taking shape with the assistance of a $7.4 million investment from the European Union, coupled with a $1 million contribution from the government.

The initiative's objectives of sustaining growth, increasing employment, sharing benefits with local communities and building a quality tourism product help position the country "as a Caribbean adventure holiday destination," Beache said.

A National Parks Authority, created as part of the tourism initiative, has earmarked sites and attractions in need of upgrades and repairs.

The first of 18 tourist-oriented sites, all of which are on St. Vincent except for one on Union Island, will open in August. The Vermont Nature Trail on St. Vincent's north coast is being renovated and upgraded with a welcome booth, new signage and improved trails. 

Other sites include the Tobago Cays, the Falls of Baleine, the Botanic Gardens, the Yourourmei Heritage Village and a lava pool at Owia Salt Pond.

A Web site highlighting ecotourism sites will be linked to St. Vincent's official Web site.

Although final visitor figures for 2007 are not available, stayover arrivals totaled 70,414 from January through September, a decrease from 2006, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. 

However, cruise growth exploded by 68%, jumping to 107,885 passenger arrivals, up from 63,872 in the same period in 2006.

In the accommodations arena, Beache said that St. Vincent "needs one or two major hotels with name-brand cachet to open here."

Under construction now on St. Vincent's southwest coast is Buccament Bay Beach Resort, a residential and resort complex that will offer accommodations from studio apartments to four-bedroom plantation houses.

Harlequin Property, the U.K. developer, is following environmental guidelines that include a biodiesel generator to power the resort, recycled water for garden irrigation and a lagoon stocked with koi carp, which feast on mosquito larvae.

Harlequin also is elevating the land three to six feet above ground level to reduce any chance of flooding.

And because many scenes from the first film in the  "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise were shot in the bay next to Buccament Bay, a pirate galleon will be built and moored there as a floating restaurant.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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