Américas / May-June 2002
By Larry Luxner
Barbados, which in early June will host the 32nd General Assembly of the Organization of American States, is one of the tiniest of OAS member nations -- and by far the most densely populated.
Yet even though 275,000 people call this 166-square-mile island home, translating into an astounding 1,658 inhabitants per square mile, Barbados feels anything but crowded.
Cruising along a rural, two-lane road in St. Andrew, one of the island's 11 parishes, it's hard to imagine a lonelier place in the Caribbean. Wide vistas of golden sugar cane, an occasional abandoned windmill and a bright blue sky characterize this place, where people drive on the left (this is "Little England," after all) and the natives are known as Bajans.
Barbados is also famous for its stunning plantation "great houses," white-sand beaches, mysterious caves and expensive Mount Gay rum.
Indeed, as the travel brochures claim, Barbados really is a land of remarkable contrasts, from the craggy, desolate Atlantic coastline in the north to busy Bridgetown in the south -- all on an island only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide.
Originally settled by Arawak peoples moving north from South America's Orinoco region 2,000 years ago, Barbados (whose name in Spanish means "the bearded ones") was essentially uninhabited by the time 60 white settlers and six African slaves arrived aboard the William and John in February 1627.
By 1639, the white population of Barbados stood at 8,700, and by 1660, Barbados was completely deforested, with more than 90% of the island already devoted to the cultivation of sugar cane and other crops. The island's unusual flatness -- a contrast to the mountainous topography of neighboring islands like St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Dominica -- also permitted the establishment of an extensive road network that endures today.
"The island developed with astonishing rapidity, becoming the most prosperous 17th-century insular colony on the globe," writes the authors of the travel book Barbados: Just Beyond Your Imagination."The initial basis for capital accumulation was the growing and export of tobacco, which in the very short run proved immensely profitable, and laid the foundation on which subsequent economic activity was to build."
Largely thanks to its isolation in the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados was never seized by French, Dutch or Spanish forces, and is the only island in the entire Caribbean that remained under the British flag right up until independence in 1966.
This year, as Barbados marks the 375th anniversary of its colonization, its people have much to celebrate: a 98% literacy rate, an unbroken tradition of democracy, and an exceptionally high standard of living.
And despite nearly 36 years of independence from Great Britain, the island still enjoys a undisputably British atmosphere. A statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson graces Bridgetown's Trafalgar Square, and afternoon tea remains a custom for many hotels on the west-coast Caribbean shores of St. James parish. The Anglican Church and that most English of sports -- cricket -- are both taken very seriously in Barbados, whose citizens place law and order, and God, above almost everything else.
Sir Courtney Blackman, who served as Barbados' ambassador to the United States for six years, from 1995 to 2001, attributed his island's success to its "remarkable" political stability.
"Since our independence, recrimination against the white minority [estimated at 4% of the total population] has been minimal," he says. "There's never been a political killing in Barbados. Even before independence, nobody could remotely be described as having been a political prisoner. Political stability is our most important characteristic."
Since 1641, Barbados has been neatly divided into 11 parishes: St. Lucy, St. Peter, St. Andrew, St. James, St. Joseph, St. Thomas, St. John, St. Michael, St. George, St. Philip and Christ Church. The last one, Christ Church, is home to Grantley Adams International Airport, while St. Michael includes Bridgetown, the capital city.
Although the main attractions of Barbados can be seen in three days, there's no point in rushing if one doesn't have to. One of the best places to get a feel for the island's rich history is Tyrol Cot Heritage Village -- a Barbados National Trust Heritage Site located just outside Bridgetown. Here, one can visit the home of Sir Grantley Adams -- leader of the struggle for democracy in Barbados -- as well as a craft village containing perfect replicas of that most unique icon of Bajan culture, the "chattel house," as well as an 1820s-era slave hut, a traditional Cockspur rum shack and a working blacksmith's shop.
Tyrol Cot, built in 1854 by William Farnum, was purchased in 1889 by Valdemar Hanschell, who in turn sold it in 1929 to Grantley Adams. The interior of the coral stone house is essentially as it was when Sir Grantley entered active politics in the 1930s. The house is built on one level, over a deep basement, in which Lady Adams and her young son Tom hid in 1937 from Sir Grantley's sometimes violent political opponents.
In the gallery is the politician's radio, which he used to listen to the BBC. The bedroom of Tom Adams -- who became prime minister of Barbados in 1976 and served until his death in 1985 -- is also carefully preserved, as is Sir Grantley's study, where tourists can see his legal books, his official license plate and the flag of the short-lived West Indian Federation, of which Sir Grantley was the only prime minister.
At the northern end of Barbados is a "house" of a totally different kind -- St. Nicholas Abbey. Despite its name, this was not an abbey, but a plantation great house built sometime between 1650 and 1660. It is said to be one of only three Jacobean plantation great houses left standing in the Western Hemisphere, the other two being Drax Hall (also in Barbados) and Bacon's Castle in Virginia.
An oddity of St. Nicholas Abbey is the inclusion of fireplaces and chimneys -- clearly unnecessary features for a climate as tropical as Barbados. The house was probably built for Col. Benjamin Beringer, though owners and residents have come and gone through the centuries. Furniture of particular interest include a grandfather clock that dates from 1759, and English porcelain dinner service manufactured in 1810.
Sugar has been grown at this plantation since about 1640 and is still grown today, the whole estate covering around 420 acres. After visiting St. Nicholas Abbey, tourists generally drive up to Cherry Tree Hill, from which they enjoy the spectacular view across the east coast of Barbados -- said to be one of the finest views in the Caribbean.
In tranquil St. Philip, tourists can visit Sunbury Plantation House, a 300-year-old mansion that was once known as Chapman's Plantation and is even shown on several early maps of the island. In 1981, after a long and colorful history, the house was separated from the sugar plantation and sold to local entrepreneur Keith Melville. The Melvilles are both horse lovers, and what began as a hobby has grown into the island's most comprehensive collection of antique horse-drawn carriages and artifacts. The Melville family resided at Sunbury until 1985, when the old house was opened to visitors.
In Bridgetown, two historic structures are particularly worth seeing. The first is Bush House, where 19-year-old George Washington resided for seven weeks in 1750 with his older brother Lawrence -- marking the only time the future president ever left the North American mainland in his life. The house, less than 10 minutes from downtown, is currently under restoration and should open to tourists next year.
The second is the Synagogue, which dates from 1654 and is one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the Western Hemisphere. Restored in the 1990s, the Sephardic synagogue -- used on special occasions by the tiny Jewish community of Barbados -- has a beautiful interior graced by chandeliers and Torah scrolls, and on its grounds is a cemetery with several hundred tombstones engraved in English, Portuguese and Hebrew.
Another not-to-miss spot is the Mount Gay distillery. A favorite of the upscale U.S. boating and yachting community, this amber rum has been produced in the northern parish of St. Lucy since 1703, marking its 300th year in business next year.
"We sell over four million bottles annually, and we're growing," says Claire Jordan, international brand manager at Mount Gay. "There's a unique historical connection between the Caribbean islands, New England and Canada's maritime provinces, when in the early days, codfish and other commodities were shipped to Barbados and we exported rum. Those areas are still pretty strong rum consumption markets."
Tourism is, of course, the mainstay of the Bajan economy, having replaced sugar long ago in importance. In 2001, just over 1.1 million tourists visited Barbados -- the highest cumulative figure for arrivals ever, says Tourism Minister Noel Lynch.
In fact, Barbados is spending $100 million to upgrade its port facilities in order to keep up with a dramatic increase in the number of cruise ships calling on the island.
"The Caribbean commands 43% of the world cruise market, and Barbados is one of the better destinations in the region," said Victor R. Roach, deputy general manager of the Barbados Port Authority. "We have good airline connections, a first-class telecom system and a stable government. The destination sells itself."
Visitors come not only for Barbados' squeaky-clean beaches and its interesting historical sites, but also for its natural beauty and its famous festivals and events.
In mid-January, the island hosts the Barbados Jazz Festival, followed by the African Renaissance Dance Festival, and in late February the Holetown Festival, which commemorates the landing of the first settlers to Barbados at Holetown in February 1627. Highlights of the festival -- now in its 25th year -- include street fairs, the Royal Police Band Concert, a Musical Festival in the historic Parish Church and a Queen Show.
Other annual events of note include the Holder's Opera Season, established in 1993 as one of the Caribbean's premier cultural events; the Oistins Fish Festival in late March; the nine-day De Congaline Carnival; the Barbados International Track & Field Classic, in May; the June 19-26 Gospelfest and of course Cropover -- the highlight of the Barbados cultural calendar.
Cropover, which originated on the sugar plantation as a means of celebrating the end of sugar-cane harvest season, was revived in 1974 after a period of depression and is marked by fairs, concerts, cart parades and the crowning of the Calypso Monarch.
To accommodate all these tourists, Barbados has 5,265 hotel rooms, ranging from elegant resorts to intimate guest houses. The island's tourism infrastructure is quite sophisticated, allowing conventions and meetings to flourish at a host of internationally acclaimed resort hotels.
The Sherbourne Centre is known among the Caribbean's finest conference facilities, featuring state-of-the-art technology and 20,000 square feet of meeting space for anywhere from 50 to 1,000 delegates. The center has hosted several important events, including the UN Global Conference on Sustainable Development for Small Island States, the Caribbean Tourism Conference and the recent Caricom Heads of Government Conference.
For visitors more interested in suntans than seminars, the Crane Beach Hotel -- located on a particularly scenic patch of oceanfront land -- has recently gone a complete renovation, adding 14 rooms onto the historic 18th-century mansion, with plans for another 20 rooms in the works. The existing one-, two- and three-bedroom suites have been upgraded with the latest luxury amenities.
Another luxury hotel, the Colony Club, has just reopened after a $7 million overhaul. Every guest room and suite has been refreshed, along with new fixtures in all the bathrooms and expanded amenity facilities, including complimentary bottled water upon arrival, bathrobes, slippers and beautiful toiletries.
Nearby, the venerable old Sandy Lane has added 112 oversized guest suites, ranging from 700 to 3,900 square feet in size, with large verandahs for relaxing outdoors and the very latest amenities; an entirely new 45,000 square-foot full-service spa; and a full-scale tennis center offering nine floodlit courts.
Barbados is also attracting a steady stream of business visitors, lured by the island's growing importance as an information technology (IT) and financial service capital. Together, the two sectors generate $100 million a year.
"We are currently concentrating on manufacturing and information services, including IT firms, call centers and Internet-based operations," said CEO E. Anton Norris, CEO of the state-owned Barbados Investment and Development Corp.
The BIDC, whose agency oversees 10 industrial parks with a combined 1.6 million square feet of available office space. says 45 companies have set up shop here -- many of them at the Harbour Industrial Estate complex in Bridgetown.
Only a few years ago, these companies did simple data entry, but are now moving into higher value-added forms of IT such as credit-card transactions, medical insurance claims processing and software development.
R.R. Donnelley Financial Barbados, a unit of New York-based R.R. Donnelley & Sons, employs 185 workers -- most of them women -- to process different file formats and prepare them for various media, from print-based typesetting to ASCII data formatting. Donnelley's clients are generally Fortune 500 firms that use the company's Barbados operations to electronically file their 10-Ks and other financial statements for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
A decision taken in September 2001 by the government of Prime Minister Owen Arthur to liberalize the Barbadian telecom sector promises to be a strong incentive for foreign investors to consider Barbados, making the former British colony an even more competitive place to do business.
"Competition will have a major impact on our promotional efforts," says BIDC's Norris. "Right now, the lack of competition is constraining more rapid expansion of business in Barbados, particularly in information-services companies that use telecom services."
The telecommunications monopoly long enjoyed by Cable & Wireless Ltd. (C&W) in Barbados will be gradually reduced over a 21-month period due to end in August 2003. First to open up to competition will be mobile telephony, followed later by local and long-distance services.
C&W has invested over $125 million in the last five years to upgrade the localtelecom network, and has spent $18 million to establish regional Internet and other value-added services that serve the entire Caribbean from Barbados. Those investments have given the 270,000 citizens of Barbados a telephone density of 45 lines per 100 inhabitants -- one of the highest teledensities in the Caribbean.
Despite the flurry of investments, however, there's little doubt that Barbados -- like nearly everywhere else in the Caribbean -- is still suffering from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
The Barbados Central Bank says the island's economy contracted by 2.8% in 2001. Tourism, which accounts for 15% of total GDP and directly employs over 12,000 workers, was severely hurt by a downturn in air and cruise-ship arrivals following the tragedy, says Economic Development Minister Reginald Farley, pushing joblessness up from 9.3% in 2000 to 10.3% in 2001. Expectations are not positive for growth or employment in 2002
To help the Barbados tourist industry recover, Farley recently announced a $16 million intervention package, which includes $4.8 million for a new tourism marketing program and a $10 million fund to assist hotels which face a loss of income.
Meanwhile, the Barbados Tourism Authority has done its small part to help families of the victims -- and in so doing has generated some very positive publicity for the island.
In mid-January, the BTA welcomed 40 visitors from the New York area. The guests were children who lost a parent in the World Trade Center attacks, and accompanying parents, grandparents and guardians. The visit was organized in conjunction with MGInternational Ltd., a hospitality industry consulting firm.
Yet, given its history, the solidarity Barbados showed the United States following the terrorist attacks shouldn't surprise anyone.
"Every time America's vital interests have been at stake, Barbados has been on her side," said Blackman, the former ambassador. "In the Revolutionary War, Barbados was very supportive of the colonies. The words 'taxation without representation' were heard in Bridgetown long before they were heard in Boston. And Barbadians fought in both World Wars I and II, and in the Vietnam War."
He adds: "The historical ties between our countries are considerable. Barbados is in the process of rekindling them. We want to preserve our heritage, and we find that it fits in beautifully with our tourism efforts."