Tourism director spearheads Montserrat's slow comeback

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NEW YORK -- Tourism to the Caribbean island of Montserrat took a quantum leap forward this summer, following the lifting of a two-year U.S. State Department advisory warning travelers of volcanic eruptions on the island.

Ernestine Cassell, the island's director of tourism, now faces a unique marketing quandary: how to promote and sell a Caribbean destination whose tourism industry has been decimated by a volcano that began to show signs of life in July 1995 after nearly four centuries of repose.

She is meeting the challenge head on.

In fact, despite the lack

of a budget, staff, airline service and accommodations,

coupled with a plethora of

bad roads, red tape and global misinformation, Cassell has singlehandedly spearheaded Montserrat's slow tourism comeback.

That's no accident.

"I always knew I wanted to go into tourism," she said. "Even as a youngster, I wanted to show off my island to others."

After a six-year stint in the U.S. that concluded with a master's degree in tourism administration from George Washington University in Washing- ton, Cassell returned home on June 24, 1997, to fill the post of tourism director.

Two days later, the Soufriere Hills volcano, which had been bubbling since 1995, erupted with a massive explosion.

Ash deposits covered the capital city of Plymouth and avalanches sent lava flows and ash down its flanks, killing 19 people and rendering the south end of the 39-square-mile island uninhabitable.

In the weeks and months following the eruption, the permanent population fell from 12,000 to 3,000; tourists, who had numbered about 30,000 a year, disappeared.

"Figuratively speaking, I jumped off the very deep end right into the ash," Cassell said.

"I knew from the start that I had to keep people informed. Calls came in from around the world. A lot of misleading information was out there, and I was the contact point."

Since the tourism offices in Plymouth had been damaged, Cassell set up operations in a vacant villa in the north of the island.

She recognized that Montserrat's tourism survival rested on a shift from upscale tourism to the adventure market.

Cassell believed that the volcano could become the centerpiece of an adventure-tourism industry -- and she set out to make that happen.

The island, once called the Caribbean's Emerald Isle, is not exactly experiencing a tidal wave of visitors -- yet.

However, as more sections reopen, especially in the southern half which has been off limits to residents since 1997, visitors are beginning to trickle back.

In fact, more than 600 day-trip visitors ferried over from Antigua last year, up from 300 in 1997.

Overall arrivals figures, including scientists, volcanologists and returning residents, jumped to 7,000 last year from 4,000 in 1997.

The most recent population count found 4,555 people living on the island.

Cassell explained that the island's northern half is untouched and looks much as it did pre-volcano, except when the wind blows inland and ash clouds descend.

She said Montserratians are experts now at cleaning their homes, businesses, streets and clothes to remove ash.

Enterprising locals bottle the ash and sell it for about $4 to tourists who find their way to the island.

The volcano's activity, which has slowed steadily over the past year, still produces ash eruptions and will continue to do so until the dome disintegrates, authorities are predicting.

Scientists from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory reported last spring that the mountain technically was in repose -- not active.

It was this report that led both the U.S. and the U.K to rescind their travel advisories.

Although there is no timetable for the reopening of the airport, which is located within the Exclusion (restricted) Zone in the south, visitors can travel by ferry from Antigua, a 50-minute, $60 roundtrip ride.

A second option is an eight-seat helicopter that makes the trip from Antigua in 25 minutes for $70 roundtrip.

But there are rarely empty seats, since government officials, meteorologists, scientists and potential investors take priority over adventuresome tourists.

Cassell now promotes island day tours that include a basic sightseeing package or a combination of a tour and a hike or a dive.

Visitors can view the pyroclastic flows from St. Georges Hill, which provides a panorama of Plymouth.

Visitors can book through a local ground operator. If they arrive without any advance arrangements, taxi drivers are more than willing to take visitors around.

So is Cassell if she happens to be at the ferry dock or heliport.

She's begun to promote overnight stays, now possible because a number of villa rooms are available.

"These villas became marketable once government employees moved out of them into rebuilt office space north of the Exclusion Zone," Cassell said.

"We have about 150 villa rooms available and all of them are commissionable."

Some rental cars are available on the island, and a new five-room bed-and-breakfast inn has opened. The island welcomed the Caledonian Star in April, its first cruise ship to call since 1997.

An 18-room hotel may open this month and the Vue Pointe Hotel, closed for three years, also hopes to reopen this year.

Cassell admitted that the promotional efforts are a day-to-day endeavor. For every step forward, there have been a few steps back.

All of Montserrat tourism representatives in the U.S., U.K. and Canada were let go in 1997 and have not been replaced.

Many of the local tourism employees fled Montserrat when their homes were destroyed and have not yet returned.

Her current staff of three, including a receptionist, now shares space with the Montserrat National Trust in an area called Alveston.

Cassell issues periodic press releases but, because of budget limitations, often has to resort to snail mail to get them distributed, a process which invariably bogs down en route.

Very few new brochures are available, and the old ones are unusable because of the four-color photos of a pre-ash Plymouth and listings of hotels that no longer operate.

"My goal is very simple," Cassell said. "I want to keep my island alive.

"Montserrat is a British colony, like Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. The government watches costs and proposes feasibility studies, which take a long time."

However, Montserrat got a big boost recently from an unexpected source.

Televison talk show host Oprah Winfrey highlighted interesting Web sites on one of her shows and applauded Montserrat's efforts to launch a site this summer.

It's a safe bet that Ernestine Cassell engineered that promotional plug.

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