For the last week, much of the conversation at the island’s yachtie haunts and ex-pat watercoolers has inevitably centred around the murder of Roger Pratt in Vieux Fort harbour, and the sad story told so bravely by his wife Margaret who was also battered in the incident. It’s a particularly awful tale when you read the couple’s blog of the first three months of their Caribbean odyssey, because Roger and Margaret’s love for each other and passion for sailing shines right through the joyful anecdotes and smiling photos. Or it did, until the blog was removed a few days after the brutal murder.
As the government damage control machine cranked into gear and high level Honourables lined up to commiserate with the bruised and heartbroken widow, flinging around well-crafted niceties about how “unfortunate” it was and how Saint Lucia “remains relatively safe for nationals and visitors alike”, I started to wonder if I had popped through the looking glass into la-la-land. The entire population has been complaining about a “crime wave” for at least the past ten years, although in the past two years it could be described as a tsunami, evidenced every Friday night at Gros Islet when tourists (and locals) and their iphones are easy pickings.
Yachtsman, respected nautical oracle and author of the Caribbean’s most authoritative Sailing Guides, Chris Doyle, has complained about Vieux Fort security for a very long time, and an advisory has been posted on doyleguides.com for the past three years. In fact, Chris’s website has a security page for each island, listing every incident reported through the region’s sailing fraternity network, like a “twilight barking” for mariners. The litany of more than 60 incidents in Saint Lucia since 2006 contradicts the official line that “hardly anything ever happens here.”
The reports are mostly robberies of electronics, money, food and outboard engines, but there is one gang assault and rape to accompany the latest entry of the murder of Roger Pratt on January 17. Since December 2010 there have been 23 reports filed, 9 of them from Vieux Fort: considering the southern port is not well frequented by yachts, that seems to be a pretty high hit rate – a chicken and egg scenario maybe.
Even if crime is not the cause, carefree visitors like Hannah Defoe and Bruce Sullivan have ended up dead at the hands of slack hotel operators and reckless construction companies which are rarely held accountable for causing other “tragic incidents” through dodgy electrical systems and unsafe building sites. In my book, the buck stops at the level of government for all of these incidents, not because it’s the Saint Lucian national psyche to blame everything on the powers that be, but because those self-promoting muckamucks who throw themselves into the political arena should know that their primary job is protecting all Saint Lucian citizens by providing laws and regulations, standards and guidelines, not simply for policing on land and sea, but to save us (and our tourists) from the threat of cowboy construction companies, rogue road builders and uncertified electricians.
In all the white noise this week, one voice has cut through the platitudes and reminded everyone who would listen that he has been calling for better security and improved customs and immigration processes for the yachting sector for years. Cuthbert Didier and I have not always seen eye to eye, but as far back as I can remember, on the topic of growing the yachting sector’s contribution to the tourism pie, he has remained steadfast in his message that if Saint Lucia wants the economic benefits of yachts, super-yachts and mega-yachts, we should provide safe anchorage and straightforward, flexible procedures for clearing in and out of the island.
If Didier’s frustration is a gauge of his impact as the island’s Yachting Consultant, it begs the question why the Ministry of Tourism even has a yachting consultant, so simple and long overdue are these suggestions. Given his professional history, Cuthbert probably remembers every yachting crime of the past 20 years, unlike the Minister who sounds like he’s either blissfully unaware of the local history of crimes against tourists, or has drunk the historical koolaid and believes that these incidents rarely happen, and Saint Lucia is (in his self-confessed “intellectual” mind at least) a “relatively” safe place. The question now is whether Didier’s called-for conversation will take place – egos, including Cuthbert’s own, left at the door – and more importantly, will the powers that be produce an action plan to finally do what is needed to protect the island’s popularity as a yachting destination.
Sweeping reality under the carpet in the interests of protecting the tourism industry has long been the modus operandi of the islands, and in the past it has been fairly successful, if not altogether ethical.
These days however, the spotlight of social media is relentless and viral, with millions of “i-reporters” able to publish the facts and their opinions, informed or not.
Just because we hid our dirty laundry in the past, does not mean the robberies, assaults, rapes and murders did not happen – with the eyes of the world’s media upon us, we’ll look damn stupid if we forget they did.