Destination of the week: Trinidad and Tobago
If you like your island vacations low-key, 'TT' is the place for you.
Sat, Feb 20 2010 at 8:30 AM
On the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, oil drilling is helping eco-tourism. Yes, where there is oil extraction, there are always concerns about habitat destruction and catastrophic spills. But oil is the main reason that Trinidad and Tobago (TT, colloquially) has taken a different path from its Caribbean peers. The country does not have to rely on mainstream “resort” tourism for much of its income. Shoulder-to-shoulder beach resorts are popping up in some areas, but vast patches of sand are (reasonably) untouched. Especially on Tobago, bungalows and small hotels still reign.
TT has that attractive, laid-back island vibe that makes it a choice destination for beach bums. But the island also owes some of its attraction to geography. It sits a mere 40 miles from Venezuela’s coastline. This puts it outside of hurricane alley, making “low season” travel a bit less risky. The location also means that the nation has a unique population of plants and animals.
With beaches, forests and mountain ranges, as well as the easy availability of locally sourced food, this one of the Caribbean’s best destinations for environmentally friendly, nature-centered travel.
The Asa Wright Nature Center is a 1,500-acre nature preserve that was founded more than four decades ago on the grounds of a cocoa plantation. The center’s development was championed by a group of naturalists and local bird-watchers. It was one of the first of its kind in the West Indies. Located between mountain ranges on Trinidad, Asa Wright is an ideal place to get in touch with the island’s unique natural elements. Because of its proximity to the forests of Venezuela, Trinidad’s wildlife has more in common with the South American jungle than with its Lesser Antillean neighbors to the north. More than 400 species of birds and 600 species of butterflies have been cataloged inside the confines of the preserve. There are frequent educational programs facilitated by the center’s staff, as well as on-site guest rooms, which can be rented for a reasonable rate.
Perhaps another reason that Trinidad and Tobago is lagging behind in the Caribbean’s tourist development game is its marine geography. Many of the beaches are flanked by water that is not conducive to swimming. That’s a negative for people who want to spend time on, in or under the waves, but it is great for travelers looking for miles and miles of uncrowded, unspoiled seaside. Tobago’s Pigeon Point and Pirates’ Bay are two of the more well-known beaches that have reasonably safe conditions for swimming.
In many cases, it is possible to camp on or near the beach. The Forestry Division of Trinidad and Tobago oversees campsites throughout the islands. The most popular places to pitch a tent include Canoe Bay on Tobago, and Vessigny Beach on Trinidad. Canoe Bay’s admission fee ($12 TT, which is only about $2 U.S.) keeps the sand from becoming overcrowded — perfect for those get-away-from-it-all enthusiasts.
It would be untrue to say that most of the food and drink on Trinidad and Tobago was produced in a sustainable way. Overfishing has been a problem for decades, although recent steps have been taken to protect species like conch (not only to save the shelled sea creature but to preserve an important traditional food source for islanders).
That said, you can be sure that most of the items you eat or drink on TT are locally caught, picked or produced. Those tropical fruits didn’t have to travel too far from tree to table. Rum producer Angostura makes top shelf products for export and plenty of bottles that are consumed locally as well. The company also makes the world-famous Angostura Bitters, which is used as everything from a tonic for indigestion to a cocktail ingredient.
Sustainability concerns aside, eating is one of the greatest attractions on Trinidad. The mixture of cooking styles (cooks blend Indian, Creole, African, Spanish, Asian and French influences with local ingredients to create distinct dishes) and the prevalence of fresh ingredients make for one of the better dining scenes in the Caribbean.
On some levels, Trinidad recognizes its eco-tourism opportunities. Places like the Asa Wright Conservancy have been successful in protecting areas and creating eco-tourism opportunities for an impressive amount of time.
The country has focused on oil and natural gas, which accounted for 46 percent of the nation’s GDP last year. In many cases (especially on the more sparsely populated island of Tobago) low-impact resorts have created a strong eco-tourism industry by default. TT’s leadership realizes the role that tourism can play, especially if it can be developed to the point that the country’s economy does not have to depend so much on fickle oil prices. Whether they choose to move into the mainstream with the industry or promote their islands’ natural features remains to be seen.
Greening the party
Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival is one of the most popular parties in the Caribbean. Though it pales in comparison to the festivities in Rio de Janeiro when it comes to size and notoriety, Trini Carnival holds its own in terms of fun. There is nothing specifically green about the days-long street party (which culminates on Feb. 16 this year), other than the fact that it takes place outdoors. But sponsors have been taking simple, grassroots steps to make the proceedings more environmentally friendly. Telecommunications Service of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT), a longtime sponsor of the festivities, placed recycling bins along the streets both to collect reusable waste and to promote the idea of recycling. The telecom company is also involved in one of the longest-running recycling projects on the islands, the reuse of oil barrels — which are easy to come by on TT — as steel-pan drums and other percussion instruments.
Trinidad has the natural resources to become a regional eco-tourism hotspot. It is now a great green destination because the success of its other industries makes mainstream tourism development less of a priority. The eco-future remains to be seen. But perhaps the government will take note of nations like Dominica, which has made eco-tourism the backbone of its economy.
MNN homepage photo: Blacqbook/iStockphoto
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