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St. Lucia Redefines the Caribbean Vacation

T+L gets an inside look at St. Lucia's bold new 25-year plan that’s poised to change Caribbean tourism as we know it.

By Peter Jon Lindberg

The term paradigm-shifting is seldom used in regard to a Caribbean vacation.

But this is St. Lucia, and it is hardly your typical Caribbean vacation spot.

That this lush volcanic island has stayed largely below the radar is a minor miracle. Plenty of people have heard of St. Lucia—its reputation for beauty precedes it—yet relatively few have been. That’s too bad for them, because this former British territory (it gained independence in 1979) has a staggering variety of landscapes, from jungle-draped peaks and black-sand beaches to tranquil cocoa plantations; luxurious marinas to sleepy Creole villages. Diving, hiking, bird-watching, sailing, yachting, and sport-fishing are all superb here. As is eating: those verdant slopes and dense forests are the source of fabulous produce, a rarity in the Caribbean. Because of its diverse population (a mélange of African, Creole, Carib Indian, French, East Indian, and British), St. Lucia also has a colorful homegrown culture that’s surprisingly accessible to travelers—another Caribbean rarity. It is a small island, one-sixth the size of Rhode Island, yet whole swaths of it remain undeveloped and remote. The roads are so switchbacked that a drive from the northern to the southern tip, 27 miles as the blue-plumed jacquot flies, can take three hours.

This all may change very soon. A sweeping—and highly unorthodox—plan is in the works to take this relatively unsung gem to the next level. It could use the help: St. Lucia accounts for only a small slice of the Caribbean’s overall visitor numbers. And the Caribbean is hardly the juggernaut it once was: the region’s share of the global tourism market has dropped from 4.5 percent to 2.5 percent. If St. Lucia’s bold stroke hits the mark—an effort that will require billions of dollars and some two decades of development—its success could have broad implications for both the Caribbean and global tourism in general.

St. Lucia made its name not on black-sand beaches but on bananas. “we called them green gold,” recalls Lyton Lamontagne, owner of the Fond Doux Holiday Plantation resort. During the island’s banana-farming heyday, from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, some 10,000 islanders made a living off the fruit. But the industry collapsed in the 1990’s with the loss of preferential trade agreements with the European Union. “The banana died,” Lamontagne says, “and tourism came in to replace it.”

Although St. Lucia draws upward of 1 million visitors in a good year, 700,000 of them are cruise-ship day-trippers, not crucial overnight guests. The island already had a handful of high-end resorts—Anse Chastanet, Ladera,Jalousie Plantation—as well as three Sandals properties (where 70 percent of U.S. visitors stay). But by the new millennium, with tourism still lagging, the government began aggressively courting investors and developers with tax breaks and other incentives.

These efforts showed some payoff. L.A.-based Viceroy Hotel Group chose St. Lucia for its first Caribbean-island Tides resort, which will take over the Jalousie Plantation in 2011. And more luxury properties have arrived in recent years, including the stunning Jade Mountain, a resort-within-a-resort at Anse Chastanet, and the Mediterranean-style Cap Maison, on the northern coast.

But St. Lucia required more than just new hotels; it needed a whole new vision. For this, the prime minister turned to a 49-year-old Lucian native with two decades of travel industry experience. Allen Chastanet—no connection to the resort—had served as the island’s director of tourism in the early 1990’s. He then spent a decade in Miami working with Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost, which runs five stylish hotels in Jamaica, and later with Air Jamaica. Upon returning to St. Lucia, Chastanet opened two small, well-regarded hotels, the Coco Palm and Coco Kreole, in the beach-and-marina resort of Rodney Bay on the island’s northwestern coast. And in 2006—upon relinquishing his stake in the Coco hotels—he was appointed St. Lucia’s minister of tourism.

Chastanet’s mandate was daunting: double the number of visitors to St. Lucia by 2012. He and his team immediately set to work on what they call a “road map” for development—an infinitesimally detailed 25-year plan that will cost half a billion dollars in the first five years alone.

The primary agenda, however, was to forge a brand for the island, with the help of New York–based firm FutureBrand, which had created destination campaigns for Singapore, Australia, and Mexico. “It was important that the brand for St. Lucia not be driven by tourism alone,” Chastanet explains in his modest office overlooking the port of Castries, the island’s scruffy capital. “The brand has to be ‘St. Lucia,’ the country. We’re only 160,000 people. If you have one overarching idea, then everyone in every sector can get behind it. And tourism can build off that.”

FutureBrand’s first trick was showing how St. Lucia’s apparent shortcomings could be recast as advantages. The relative difficulty of getting to the island, for example, keeps St. Lucia appealingly “off the beaten path.” Its low profile, meanwhile, makes it a “best-kept secret.” And its limited, mostly small-scale development qualifies it as a “boutique” island.

FutureBrand found similar themes when it identified the island’s core attributes with four key words: lush, mosaic(i.e., diverse and colorful), genuine, and, again, boutique. It’s this last characteristic that struck a particular chord with Chastanet. “To me the word is about attention to detail, great service, a unique personality, being intimate in scale,” Chastanet says. “St. Lucia has that in spades.”

Most of the island’s existing hotels and resorts are on the smaller side to begin with; this will now become a priority. All-inclusives and international-brand resorts will play a part as well—“You need a mix of properties to give you volume and flights,” Chastanet explains—but the emphasis has to be on the little guys.

This wasn’t just a cynical leap onto the small-is-trendy bandwagon. Chastanet and his staff worked up complex algorithms that proved “boutique” (read: smaller) hotels are the best investments in terms of both capital and the island’s most limited resource: land. “They hire more people per room than bigger resorts,” he explains. “They tend to have stronger links to your economy. Being small, they cause less stress on your infrastructure, and are generally less damaging to your environment.”

Some of these boutique properties will be budget-oriented: B&B’s, homestays, two- and three-star hotels. But near the top of the agenda are what the industry calls “premium pleasures.” St. Lucia was already a port of call on the yachting circuit; this spring the Rodney Bay Marina was upgraded and expanded to cater to “megayachts,” a whole realm beyond the 100-foot superyacht class. And on an island with only two golf courses, seven more are currently in the works.

But fairways and megayachts are not the endgame. St. Lucia could certainly fashion itself after other small islands such as Turks and Caicos, which has had great success with luxury boutique resorts such as Parrot Cay and Amanyara. Instead, Chastanet is thinking outside the typical Caribbean mold—by incorporating local culture into the plan. You heard that right, vacationers: culture.

As Chastanet sees it, today’s discerning travelers want more than a sea-and-sand escape; they want a singular experience on top of their R&R, preferably one that conveys a sense of place. “You need to create opportunities for the guests to interact with locals,” Chastanet says. For this reason, St. Lucia’s best bet is to embrace the idea of “village tourism.” “The concept is no different from what you see in France or Italy,” he says. “Only there, it’s done on a more sophisticated level, and it’s developed organically over hundreds of years.”

This is why tourism officials would like to see more small hotels located in towns, not isolated in remote corners. Bring them together in existing communities, Chastanet says, and they function as one collective resort: “The individual properties become like different room categories, with everyone sharing the same common space”—the town itself. He imagines visitors “stopping at a local rum shop, wearing sandals, and having an amazing meal.”

Until now, however, getting travelers into the villages has been a challenge. Hardly anyone, for instance, lingers in Soufrière, the dusty Creole town in the shadow of the Pitons, St. Lucia’s iconic twin peaks. Most travelers prefer to explore the beaches, the mountains, the rain-forested interior.

To that end, Chastanet’s office is lined with glossy before-and-after renderings, showing the planned redevelopment of St. Lucia’s dozen-odd seaside towns and waterfronts. Some changes are cosmetic (restored façades; flower beds), others are infrastructural (new piers and marinas; bypass roads to keep traffic out of the towns). The goal is to make the villages more functional and eye-pleasing without sacrificing their character. Ultimately, a new ferry service would connect the waterfront towns, encouraging visits from cruise-ship passengers and resort guests. All this seems an extraordinarily ambitious and costly undertaking when you consider that the intended result is not some future-world metropolis but a handful of simple, pleasant nostalgia-inducing towns and villages, made a few notches more pleasant. “You want to give people an authentic experience of St. Lucian culture,” Chastanet says, “but present it at a higher standard.”

To get a bead on the sort of experience Chastanet is talking about, I pay a visit to Fond Doux, a working plantation and eco-resort owned by Lyton and Eroline Lamontagne, in the hills above the village of Soufrière. Established by French colonials in 1745, the 130-acre estate is rich with tropical fruit, but its main crop is cocoa, for which St. Lucia has long been renowned. (Fond doux means “sweet valley” in Lucian patois.)

The plantation is open to the public for guided tours—visitors can see the cocoa beans being aged in the rustic fermentary house, then pressed underfoot, like wine grapes, in giant iron pots. Two open-air restaurants serve traditional Creole dishes like fish curry and jerk chicken. Overnight guests can choose between simple bungalows or one of several 19th-century cottages, which Lyton relocated from far-flung corners of the island and restored himself.

It’s a deeply charming place, and a fine model for the intimately scaled, distinctly St. Lucian experience endorsed by the ministry’s plan. More to the point, it’s owned and run by Lucians. “Ultimately you want to see local people starting hotels and restaurants,” Chastanet says. “Our goal is that any properties below a three-star rating be exclusively owned by nationals.”

And this is where the plan gets extremely interesting. Chastanet’s office is creating an umbrella brand called Village Tourism Incorporated. “Every small property must become a member,” he explains. “In exchange, the government will pay for the marketing, the accounting, product development, even interior decorators. New hotels must meet certain criteria, and existing hotels that don’t meet the standard, we’ll put money in to help them refurbish.” The properties will still be independently owned and managed, but they’ll be marketed and quality-controlled by the Village Tourism brand. Chastanet envisions even small restaurants and shops one day falling under the VTI umbrella as well.

It’s a daring proposal, but it might be precisely what the island needs. Right now, as in much of the Caribbean, an invisible line separates the locals’ world from the one travelers inhabit; a few places manage to cross over, but those are exceptions.

In a just world, for instance, every visitor would know about Theresa Henry’s legendary bakery, occupying a squat riverfront shack in Soufrière. Until her retirement in 2006, Henry manned the ovens for six decades; the only days she took off were the days she bore each of her 14 children. Her daughters now run the place. They open at sunrise and sell out of their famous Creole baguettes by eight. I went one morning and was, by one worker’s account, the first traveler they’d served in memory. But the bakery feeds plenty of tourists indirectly: chef Jonathan Dearden at Jade Mountain uses Henry’s baguettes for his heavenly pulled-pork sandwich; Jalousie Plantation serves them at breakfast. Why not, in Chastanet’s vision, skip over the middlemen and bring travelers directly to the bakery?

St. Lucia has already seen its star rise of late, despite the broader setbacks in tourism. JetBlue started service this fall, and other international carriers are adding direct flights. Most significant, it has been attracting some prominent hotel brands. For all the emphasis on small, independent properties, St. Lucia needs big-name resorts to raise its global profile and to convince other investors to put up tent poles. Since Chastanet took office, Ritz-Carlton and RockResorts have announced projects on St. Lucia—in addition to the Tides. Meanwhile, unconfirmed rumors fly about outposts from Banyan Tree, Six Senses, and Canyon Ranch. “Right now we have 5,000 hotel rooms. We’d like to get to 10,000—that will bring more nonstop flights,” Chastanet says. But he is cautious about developing beyond that number, citing overcapacity and vacancies in once-booming destinations like Miami.

Despite recent advances, “The Plan” has been met with a certain amount of skepticism. First, there’s the question of money: much of it was conceived in flusher times; public support has waned in the face of the new economy. In Chastanet’s view, the downturn makes it doubly necessary to follow through. “Every country faces this question: Do you put money in your productive sector [i.e., tourism] or in social programming?” he says. “I’m a believer that you keep your productive sector going, because that finances everything else. Especially in hard times.”

But some of the resistance stems from resentment of the minister of tourism himself, a wealthy man of mostly European descent on an island that’s more than 80 percent black. Furthermore, Chastanet was schooled in Washington, D.C., and Quebec, and has spent much of his career off-island. “He’s known derogatorily as ‘Mr. Miami,’ ” one insider tells me (and she actually supports the plan).

Then there are the cultural and racial undertones, perhaps unavoidable in the Caribbean. Consider the objections of the St. Lucia–born poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who has called tourism “slavery with a smile” and beach resorts “new plantations by the sea.”

Chastanet says he’s learned from his experience in Jamaica, where what he calls the “bunker mentality” of many tourists—who spend their holidays barricaded in resorts—has aggravated an us/them situation. “I don’t think the Caribbean as a whole has been sensitive enough to that issue,” he says. “People rightly ask, ‘Is this service, or is this servitude?’ It’s important to break down that barrier.”

That’s where his plan for local ownership comes in. “The key is engaging the public, keeping them aware of the benefits and the progress that the island is making,” says Cuthbert Didier, manager of the Rodney Bay Marina and an ally of Chastanet’s. “If you don’t have local ownership, it’s not going to work. They’ll see tourism as an invasion.”

Were the master plan carried through, would the “new” St. Lucia actually work? Of course, Chastanet is primarily a salesman—a very skilled one—and as prone as the next official booster to blur the line between progress and mere potential. Part of the job of any tourism minister is to talk mainly in the future tense, to see the world as a bright and shiny artist’s rendering; at times Chastanet seems to live in that rendering.

But he is in the rare position of having worked on both sides of the trade and, crucially, of having been a traveler himself; it’s safe to say that he “gets” it, not just from an upmarket angle but from multiple perspectives. His work with Island Outpost hotels helped him recognize that high-end travel, increasingly, “doesn’t have to be gold-plated, with 700-thread-count sheets. It’s about color, texture, design, provoking emotion.” That sensibility may explain why the tourism plan is as impressive for its relatively good taste as for its sweeping ambition.

Chastanet, who is also the chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, hopes that St. Lucia—and especially Village Tourism—can be an example for the entire region. Whether or not travelers in the Caribbean are indeed seeking substantive experiences or just fairways and daiquiris is, of course, open to debate. And whether a master plan can simply will authenticity and culture into being—creating a permeable, mutually beneficial, sustainable environment for both villagers and travelers—is entirely up in the air. But the answers to those questions may well inform your next vacation.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.