THE ANTILLES TODAY
Politically the Lesser Antilles fall into five principal groups:
The American Virgin Islands
The three main islands of the Virgin Islands archipelago, St Thomas, St Croix and St John together have been made into an Associated US Territory, thereby enjoying a certain level of autonomy.
The independent exBritish islands
These became independent between 1966 and 1983. Scattered from north to south of the island arc, they are: St Kitts & Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada and Barbados.
The autonomous British islands
Still attached to the British crown, but having considerable autonomy, are: Montserrat, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.
The French Islands
Martinique and Guadeloupe, are French Overseas Departments and as such enjoy specific regional and customs status. St Barthélémy and the French part of St Martin, have now been given new status as ‘French Autonomous Overseas Collectivities’.
The Netherlands’ islands
Saba, Statia and Sint Maarten were previously part of the federation of the Netherlands Antilles, alongside Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. However, in a 2010 referendum, the three islands voted to become autonomous states within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
ECONOMY AND TOURISM
The islands’ economic development is partly conditioned by their political status but equally by their geographical location and their attractiveness to tourists.
The American Virgin Islands (US Virgin Is or USVI)
Quite distinct because of their level of urbanisation and high population density, the islands have a modern infrastructure and plenty of natural advantages.
Tourism has been extensively developed, making these small domains an exotic extension of the Florida coast.
The BVI (British Virgin Is)
Right next door to the US Virgins, in the same US dollar area and benefiting from an American clientele, the BVI have enjoyed considerable investment in tourism. It is specially targeted at waterbased activities because of the exceptional coastlines, fringed by a multitude of islets.
The French islands
Martinique and Guadeloupe, well placed in the middle of the Antillean arc, benefit from a French Metropolitan led tourism policy, which has dynamically boosted investment in hotels and sea sports.
St Barts’ and St Martin’s new autonomous status should boost their economies and may even transform them into real little tax havens.
The Netherlands islands
These islands don’t all enjoy the same economic situation. Tiny Statia and Saba, populated by retired folk, have had their tourism development limited by their scant resources and their minute land area. Beaches are few to nonexistent, though diving enthusiasts find compensation in superb underwater scenery.
Sint Maarten, the Dutch counterpart to French St Martin, has by contrast vast beaches, an immense lagoon, luxury hotels and casinos. It also has, like its Gallic twin, a very liberal fiscal status. These advantages have driven the development of tourism on a scale that some see as uncontrolled.
The ex British islands
Whether independent or autonomous, each is a special case. In practice, politica status has had little bearing on commercial development, the sole point of importance being access to the manna of tourism, whether from Europe or America. In that sense these islands are far from being on an equal footing.
Antigua and St Lucia have the advantage of superb, if very different, coastlines and their plans for hotel development are going ahead full tilt.
In much the same fashion St Vincent, if more austere, has the sumptuous Grenadines, emblematic of tropical paradise.
All these islands can hope steadily to improve their present economic situation thanks to tourism.
Aware of this, other islands like St Kitts and Nevis or Anguilla have fallen into step and begun accelerating hitherto evanescent tourism development.
The example of nearby St Martin has stimulated them too.
Grenada is a separate case, maybe because it’s the most harmoniously balanced thanks to its untamed forests, its cultivation of spices and its stunning beaches. Sadly, successive political problems have undermined its tourism development and, despite current government efforts, a major increase in tourist and cruising yacht numbers has yet to take place.
And what of the forgotten islands...? Montserrat, with its ever peaceful air, a haven of refuge for its faithful English and Canadia devotees, has been sadly devastated by successive hurricanes and then had much of it buried by ash and lava by the violent reawakening of its volcano.
Dominica, a wild and unique island of junglegreen mountains, remains partly virgin and still unexplored.
These islands are still essentially tied to farming, smallscale stockrearing and the odd oldstyle artisan. Tourism for them is as yet a passing supplement, often thanks to a neighbouring, more developed island getting overcrowded and a few sailors looking for somewhere less busy to go.
This swift economic review perhaps explains why the income of Antillean people can vary by a factor of four or more and that is what makes for the varying standards and costs of living. It is something the tourist should bear in mind for, if it’s true that tourism development brings creature comforts as a corollary, then that necessarily has an influence on prices. The Virgin Islands and the French Antilles are good examples of this.