ST. VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES: 'Best sailing waters in the world'
Thomas Cromwell

No doubt one of the smallest countries with the longest names, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is one of the less-known Caribbean nations. Less known that is, if you are not one of the super rich with a place on Mustique, or the owner of a yacht who plies the wondrous sailing waters of the Grenadines.

There is no international airport on the group of 32 islands, and St. Vincent's ambassador to Washington, Ellsworth I. A. John, says this makes his homeland, "an unknown destination in the Caribbean." It is located in the southeastern Caribbean, roughly positioned between St. Lucia, Barbados and Grenada.

The Grenadines are known to enthusiasts to offer "the best sailing waters in the world," according to the ambassador. This, combined with the natural beauties typical of the Caribbean, including pristine white-sand beaches and turquoise seas, and the rich mix of peoples that make up the population of 117,000, give it a huge tourism potential, and Ambassador John says, "We are ready to promote ourselves as one of the premier destinations."

St. Vincent has always had an agriculture-based economy, and now that it is gearing up to shift its focus to tourism, it has the advantage of the experience of its better-known neighbors. For the moment, hotels on the islands are small, and the plan is to keep them that way, with a focus on ecotourism (in part centered on the environs of the active Soufriere volcano on the island of St Vincent) and the high-end market, rather than transforming what the ambassador calls "an unknown paradise in the Caribbean" into a mass tourism destination.

Ambassador John is keen on his mission to Washington, and takes every opportunity to promote St. Vincent. "I would like to think we are putting a face on St. Vincent and the Grenadines," he says.

He also devotes a good bit of his time to the diaspora community in the United States, seeing this as a promising source of investment capital to build the tourism infrastructure and other much-needed developments on the islands. However, he is still in the process of building a reliable database of the many compatriots who have made the US their home. Although he does not have figures for the numbers now resident here, he says many came to American shores legally, but then overstayed. Their illegal status blocks their progress and he would like to see this issue resolved with Washington.

The embassy says there are some 20 Vincentian groups in the US, and it is exploring the possibilities for particular groups to invest in specific projects, such as in the tourism field. The ambassador says the government in St. Vincent is trying to facilitate this process, providing incentives to such investors. A good model for this, he says, is how the Salvadorian government is working with its diaspora community in the United States.

St. Vincent has had an embassy in Washington since 1990, and shares a building with five other Caribbean missions. Being so small, it naturally works closely with other Caribbean countries in talking to official Washington. "We strongly view the United States as friends of the Caribbean," the ambassador stresses.

His government is committed to deepening relations in the Western Hemisphere, and has taken this task so seriously that it is actively promoting the learning of Spanish in its schools, and has a program to send 140 students to Mexico over the next few years to perfect their knowledge of Latin America's most common language.

The Caribbean is engaged with the US, Canada and Mexico in what is called the Third Border Initiative, or TBI. In other words, there are discussions about how to integrate the Caribbean into the North American Free Trade Agreement as a fourth partner. "We are focused on pursuing closer ties with the US to make sure… that we have a partnership," the ambassador explains.

He points out that this partnership has several dimensions, including cooperation on security issues, of heightened importance since the attacks on America on September 11, 2001. Border crossings are of particular importance given the number of Caribbean islands and the relative ease of movement between them and the US coast.

He says that the relationship should be based on trust. "Friends should be open with each other… and find ways to work things out when there is a problem between them."

St. Vincent also belongs to the Organization of American States and is active in its programs to build free trade zones in the hemisphere. Ambassador John, who currently chairs the OAS budget committee in Washington, says that although the size of countries in the group varies dramatically, each should be treated with respect. And St. Vincent has been active in all regional discussions, because "We do not want conventions agreed that include us but we are not a part of the negotiations."