Sunday, April 12, 2009

Heritage Tourism – Importance & Benefits

By Marcus M. Mottley, Ph.D.


Several years ago I successfully paved the way for over 100 medical doctors and their family members to visit Antigua. They were members of the Howard University Medical Association and I had persuaded them to hold their annual conference at the Jolly Beach Hotel.

Before they came they also asked me to arrange a  “heritage” tour for them. A '”heritage tour”? Yes – A Heritage Tour!

These savvy travelers had been coming to the Caribbean for years and were tired of the ‘normal tourist tours’ that mostly showcased remnants and vestiges of the European colonial past.

“No more,” they said. They wanted to see the heritage of the Africans who were brought to the Caribbean.

So, I embarked on a search for someone who could conduct this “heritage tour”. Well… it was a frustrating search. Finally, I was connected to the person at the head of our Museum. The individual, who claimed to be Guyanese, (at the head of our museum!) informed me that we could take the group to the Nelson’s Dockyard!

Well, apparently she had not understood the portion fo the request that referenced “Heritage” and “African”. So I repeated the request – slowly and in detail. She indicated to me that she had clearly understood, and that what I apparently did not know… was that many of the buildings at Nelson’s Dockyard had been built by “African slaves”.

Now… normally, I am very cool and calm… but that day… at that moment… well…

Obviously, I had to move on from that source. I got recommendations such as Betty’s Hope, Monk’s Hill and the like. I was told to contact Mr. Nicholson or his representatives… whoever they are. Of course, for ‘obvious’ reasons… (that’s another long story) I dismissed those recommendations.

Finally, it dawned on me that Pappy Sammy could help. I contacted Keithlyn Smith. After some discussion, he agreed that this was something that he could and would like to do… though he had never really done anything of this magnitude before. He was evidently qualified to give the tour our visitors wanted.

As we say… “To cut a long story short”… the “heritage tour” was an overwhelming success. Ambassador Smith took us to visit about five sites significant to the presence of the first Africans in Antigua. We visited sites at Green Castle, Bendals Village, Freeman’s Village, and the ‘healing tree’ at North Sound.

The visitors listened in awe as Ambassador Smith gave the history of each site. Many were in tears as he vividly described the suffering, the courage and the fortitude of our great, great grandparents.

These doctors, many of whom are at the top of their fields in various branches of medicine, were thrilled to learn of the ‘healing tree.’ I was amazed that that tree… revealed by Papa Sammy was still there… at the very spot… hudreds of years later.  Everyone took out coins and deposited them at the root of the tree as they silently envisioned health and longevity- while some picked and stowed away a few of the broad, shiny leaves to later apply to their arthritic backs and knees!

It has been five years since they visited. Some of them have returned and a few of them have invested in local businesses; one has taught at a medical school; and, at least one – is currently integrally involved in the administration of the new Mount St. Johns Hospital.

Over the intervening years, I have spoken with several of these doctors, and they all refer to that heritage tour as an event that they will never forget.

I have shared this story with a few people involved in the Tourist Industry… some who were administrators and decision makers at the highest level. Even with this, very few of them seem to understand the critical importance of highlighting our Antiguan and Barbudan African Heritage.

Every island in the Caribbean… every island in the world… features three things in its bid to attract tourists: Sea, sand and sun. St. Kitts has those. St. Lucia has those. Barbados has those. Hawaii has those. Fiji has those. The Solomon Islands have those.

What else does Antigua and Barbuda have that can and will differentiate it from every other island. We have our heritage. Yes… every island has its heritage… and many island nations particularly those in the Pacific ensure that they focus on, capture and present to the world the uniqueness of their heritage as an attraction.

Here in Antigua and Barbuda… we have a dual heritage. No… the European heritage is not included. We have our African heritage. And we have our native islander heritage… a heritage that I must admit that I know very little about.

So here is what we need to do.

  1. First we need to commission individuals like Dr. Reginald Murphy and Ambassador Keithlyn Smith to research, identify and document key heritage sites in our twin island state. We need them to write full descriptions on the history and importance of these sites.
  2. Then our government must select the most hallowed of these sites and place them on a protected sites list… whereby they cannot be desecrated by unbridled capitalism and greed like that which is going on between Bendals and Green Castle and at Indian Creek. Those sites would become an integral part of our “National Parks”
  3. We next need to select those sites around the country where we think visitors might be interested in and might benefit from learning about the historical facts related to each site. Those sites would be developed into tourist attractions where a National Park Ranger would conduct short educational tours. Mementos and educational materials would be developed around each site by our skilled artisans and craft experts. These would be on sale at the site. Each site would have shops, eating and rest-room facilities.
  4. At a national level our tourism product would have a major additional focus… heritage sites. Cruise ship visitors would have real choices beyond visiting the beach and a the remaining places that feature the historical presence of the racist, slave holding, European colonialists. Visitors who are currently imprisoned by hoteliers in their all-inclusive hotels will have more than just the beach and the bar to entertain them.
  5. Indeed… with heritage sites all around the country and in Barbuda… the "beach will just be the beginning”.

It seems to make sense that we should already have done these things. Why have they not been done?

As I have said above, I have talked about this to key decision-makers in the Ministry of Tourism. While they, for the most part, have no objections to the notion of ‘heritage tourism’, they indicate that many of the hoteliers may object to the idea. They also indicate that one or two of Antigua’s so-called eminent archeologists or historians (I am not sure what they would have called themselves) would and have objected to such a focus in past.

Many of those who object, embrace the European ‘heritage’ of Nelson, Codrington and Baldwin as Antigua and Barbuda’s heritage. These people argue that to raise the issue of African heritage is to be divisive. They say we don’t need to talk about the slaves who were hanged at Bendals and we need not speak of the first council that was held between Freeman’s village and Sea View Farm. Nope… we only need to focus on Monks Hill, Fort James and… oh yes… Betty’s Hope. (Who was Betty anyway? She certainly wasn’t either of African origin or a native Carib…)

I totally reject those arguments.

“For here in Antigua, we boast of a Heritage Quay built by Italians, entirely in Italian architectural style, and we have had the sheer gall to name this Italian conceived, designed and executed shopping mall: Heritage Quay. There is nothing Caribbean about it. Nothing African. It is entirely alien in conception and execution, and yet this alienated structure is labeled our Heritage.” Tim Hector, Fan the Flame: October 25, 1996 .

For the first time, Antiguans and Barbudans must take control not only of our future but of our past… our heritage. We must choose those things which we want – the majority of us – to identify who we are, where we are from and where we are going.

If our tourism product is to be successful it must feature more than sea, sand and sun. It must feature who we are. All of who we are and not just the European side of our history. I want my story told to the tourists who come here… and I know that they would be intrigued… would want to know… would want to see… would want to touch… would want to feel… my story… Papa Sammy’s story… not just Nelson’s or Betty’s for that matter.

If the responses of the doctors of the Howard University Medical Association are to be used as a guide… then Heritage Tourism will help to reinvigorate our main economy – even in these hard times. Yes… I know what one segment of the critics will say, behind their hands, about these doctors… “They were all African American…. of course they would have been interested in the African Heritage…”

In Washington, DC the vast majority of the people who visit the Holocaust Museum are not Jews… they are Japanese, Chinese, British, Canadian, German, Russian, Australian, South African, Nigerian, African American…. They are from California, Hawaii, Montana, Alaska…

The people who visit Antigua and Barbuda come here… not to see Nelson or Betty’s Hope… they come to see whatever we have to show them… They come to see what’s different about us…. and what’s different from them and from where they are from… They come to be intrigued, inspired, educated and entertained. They come because they are curious, they want knowledge, and yes… because they want to relax.

The sea, sand and sun… will help with the relaxation. Calypso Joe and Franco will help with the entertainment. And, through Heritage Tourism we will satisfy their curiosity,  help them gain knowledge and be educated, and hopefully they will also be intrigued, inspired and persuaded to see Antigua and Barbuda as unique. 

And… in the meantime… they will spend their money for those blessings… And they will spend their dollars outside of those all-inclusive hotels on the artistic and historical creations designed and crafted by our local artisans.

“It continues to amaze me, that in 1996, children are taught ad nauseam, about the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina. These same children who are taught about these three European boats, know nothing about the three great West African Empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay.” Tim Hector, Fan the Flame: October 25th, 1996.

Yes Tim… It continues to amaze me that our children are not taught our history… the history of Antiguans and Barbudans – I mean our history… rather than his-story… the limited, partially told story of the Europeans in Antigua and Barbuda which have been and still is forced on our children.

Heritage tourism will help to correct that in such a way that our children will know… They will learn about King Court, Prince Klaas, Tomboy, Hercules and Fortune. They will learn the real story of their forefathers… they will learn about much more than the ‘weedie weedie bush’ and Moody Stuart….

Let us focus on reclaiming our heritage and then use it to generate income through our tourist industry.

Develop heritage tourism. Start the process now!