A top eco-tourism destination, Tobago is a culturally diverse island with a fascinating history. Minister of Tobago Development Vernella Alleyne-Toppin speaks about her island’s uniqueness, roots and vision to continue as a successful, sustainable and green paradise
What would you say is the most important thing to celebrate in these 50 years of independence?
Trinidad & Tobago has come of age. In 2012 we celebrate our past, our existence, and our expectations for the future. We are a nation of diversity. Columbus discovered that there were people in Trinidad in 1498. He actually never set foot in Tobago; he saw Tobago in the distance and named it “La Magdalena”, after one of his ships. That marked the beginning of our diversity, with Spanish occupation of Trinidad, African labor coming to work in the cocoa and coffee plantations, and later Trinidad becoming a British colony with workers coming from China, Syria, Lebanon and India.
We have used different languages in Tobago, including English, French and a mixture of African words coloring a patois of English. Trinidad and Tobago became a mixture of races and religions. And that diversity is the very essence of who we are as a nation; people who live together in harmony. We have respect, harmony, tolerance and discipline as core principles of our nation. These are the values that bind us together.
In T&T we celebrate everything! We are the country with perhaps the most holidays in the world. We honor all religious festivities and secular days. Trinidad & Tobago is a beautiful combination of cultures and religions. We also work very hard in between all of this! This is a great place to do business!
What is Tobago? What needs to be communicated internationally?
Tobago is a coral and volcanic island, with lots of beautiful natural features: many species of birds, coral reefs teeming with fish, great biodiversity, tropical forests and multicolored sand beaches. Our island is bathed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It is a small but beautiful island, calm, clean, and green with stunning views; it’s what some describe as Robinson Crusoe’s island. Idyllic, clean, green, safe and serene with a fantastic friendly face at every turn.
We actually call Tobago “the capital of Paradise” and we aim to keep that paradise; legend says that no building should be higher than a coconut tree. Tobago’s economy depended on windmills and water-driven factories; now we are going back to our roots by developing green energies in order to preserve our island and achieve a neutral carbon footprint.
We have signature tourist attractions like Pigeon Point, and our tropical rainforest, preserved by law since 1776. We have won the Travel’s Award for the Best Eco Tourist Destination for four consecutive years. Trinidad & Tobago has also won the Best Heritage Destination Award because we are a nation that preserves its nature and culture for its future generations.
As the song says, “I dreamed that I was living in the world beyond, and hearing of the world that used to be; tell me again what was a bird, what was a tree.” Even as we modernize, and attract more ICT, we will keep our island as pristine as it is as a gift to those who must inherit after we are gone.
The new Government has implemented a change of mentality in the island. As you said, “We celebrate what we expect to get in the future”. What do you expect for the future of Tobago?
The Ministry of Tobago Development aims to develop Tobago in every sense of the word; develop the minds of our people to accept a modern world, to move towards self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship and away from survival and subsistence economy. We want to use our indigenous material: we have the best cocoa to make chocolate in the world!
We are also collaborating with the universities in the development of our maritime industry, in order to foster a friendly way of fishing, and the preservation of our heritage. We are also working on our agriculture, as we used to be “the breadbasket of the Caribbean”. During the colonial era wealth was measured in England, thus, “He’s as rich as a Tobago planter”.
We would like to develop our tourism through public private partnerships, while keeping our eco-friendly thrust.
Other sectors for expansion would be the development of the yachting industry, the creation of a waterpark and a natural history museum. At Pigeon’s Point we propose to establish a theme park that features our local folklore characters.
Tobago inspires everyone. Anya Ayoung Chee, the recent winner of the U.S. reality show “Project Runway”, was inspired by the colors on the island and named her collection “Tobago Love”: the kind of shy and controlled love that is not displayed in public. This is that romantic place where love grows.
“Tobago is the place where ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things”: What would you like to achieve in Tobago?
I would like to build things that last for generations. I want to build a university that will produce writers, architects, and doctors: people who will bring honor to our island. I have proposed to build statues to remember our heroes; to celebrate all the great things they have achieved for Tobago; international standard medical institutions; viable and sustainable enterprises; I want to do lasting things that will be remembered for posterity.
You have talked about lasting things, opportunities and investments. What would you like to do for the people of Tobago?
I want to reawaken in our people the resilience and independence of spirit they used to have. I do not want to invent a new people; I would like to go back to our origins, to the greatness of the people of Tobago. We have that natural instinct that separates good from evil, and we should build on the good of our people to achieve a better society.
“No island is an island”. Tobago must understand its place in this world; Tobago needs to develop that maturity to advance with the world while maintaining its natural heritage. Together, Tobago and Trinidad will build a nation that endures the changing tides of time.
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