Devastated by a volcano, Montserrat has tourism in its sights on its road to recovery, writes David Whitley.
Little Bay would have to be the oddest-looking national capital you will ever see. Aside from a few shacks on the shore and the collection of stalls known as the festival village, there are just two grandiose buildings and a lot of dust.
Those two buildings are the marketplace and the Cultural Centre. And if they look like they've just been removed from the wrapping paper, that's because they have. The Cultural Centre, in particular, looks spectacularly out of place. It's an arts, performance and media facility that is arguably the most up-to-date in the entire Caribbean region. And it is hoped that it will become one of the focal points in a town that is being built from scratch.
Little Bay is in the north of Montserrat and, 20 years ago, it was nothing. It was in the part of the island seen fit only for wandering goats. The capital was (and still technically is) Plymouth, in the south-west of this small Caribbean island. That was before the volcano stirred. The Soufriere Hills volcano had been dormant for more than 400 years before it started erupting in 1995. It is still active and much of Montserrat has been buried in ash and mud as a result.
Two-thirds of the island is now in an exclusion zone. The houses that were there (most of the Montserratians lived in the area that is gated off) are abandoned at best, destroyed at worst.
Plymouth is a modern-day Pompeii, completely buried and burnt out. It can now only be seen by boat tour or from the top of one of the hills that overlook it; the views offer a heart-in-mouth picture of nature's destructive force.
When it became clear that it was simply not safe to live in Plymouth and the surrounding areas, a mass evacuation was required. Schools and churches became temporary accommodation for hundreds, tent shelters were erected alongside steep mountain roads and established businesses moved into little shacks on the north of the island.
Rose Willock, who was the station manager of Radio Montserrat at the time of the evacuations, says the destruction was emotional, as well as physical.
“Some people lost everything but that wasn't the main problem. I knew my house would be one of the first to go and I was ready for it,” she explains.
“But close-knit families were split up and quite a number of people are still in a state of flux.”
Many Montserratians elected for a life overseas, largely prompted by generous relocation packages offered by the British Government. Sometimes the fathers went and the children stayed; in others, extended families were spread across the world.
Rose argues that those who stayed are in a much better position. “We have moved on. We have got closure and are more comfortable with things," she says.
“This is our home – it's the only place we know and we would much rather stay in that home and see it come back to normality.”
The Little Bay development is part of the attempt to rebuild. The Cultural Centre – partly funded by ex-Beatles producer Sir George Martin, who once had a recording studio on the island – is just the first step. The ambitious plans for Little Bay include a breakwater, yacht marina, hotel and condo complex and a safe harbour. Away from the shore, the plan is to create several "clusters" – one focused on culture, one on heritage, one on business. The government and civil service – currently huddled in a series of hurriedly-built structures on a hilltop – will also move there.
The project will cost an estimated $EC300 million (about $170 million) and much of that sum will come in foreign aid. It is hoped that everything will be ready within 10 years.
Just as important for the island, however, is the return of tourism. People are slowly trickling back in – mostly to have a gawp at what the volcano has done.
But visitor numbers are still at the stage where outsiders are a fascinating curiosity. Locals want to talk to strangers in bars, show them around and tell their stories of upheaval. They also want visitors to go away and tell their friends about the experience – it's doubtful that there's a friendlier place on earth.
And the Montserratians are looking to the future rather than the past. A range of tourism operators – including a diving outfit, a heritage village, guesthouses, a campsite and a day tour company from neighbouring Antigua – have been handed funding to help them expand and stimulate interest in the rest of the island.
As Rose Willock says, "Exciting things are happening." And Little Bay is perhaps the most exciting of all.
“The new town will never be Plymouth – that cannot be replicated,” she says. “We have an opportunity to make it what we want. We can create a town we can be proud of; one that can also serve as a monument.”
Montserrat is in the Caribbean. To get there, it is necessary to take a short flight with Winair from Antigua. There is also an intermittent ferry service between the two islands, which the Montserrat Government hopes to make permanent very soon. Getting to Antigua requires changing planes in the US. See fly-winair.com.
WHERE TO STAY
For accommodation options and tourist information, see the Montserrat Tourist Board website, visitmontserrat.com.