Why Tourism Could Ruin St Helena Culture
DON’T FORGET THE SAINTS | Darrin Henry
For years we’ve been told, ‘the most special thing about St Helena is the people and its culture,’ and it would form the cornerstone of our new tourism based economy.
However, when it comes to marketing St Helena, experts driving the island’s tourism objective seem to be stuck on Napoleon and Jonathan the tortoise.
The popular language is still being used, but what’s lacking is an obvious strategy of how to frame this “special” feature as a tourism product.
What Is Saint Culture?
Against the odds we now have a certified airport, however, tourism development which should have progressed in tandem has stalled on a tortoise and the ghost of a French emperor whose remains lie in Paris. Don’t get me wrong, St Helena is fortunate to have these superb attractions. Longwood House and the French properties are world class as we’ve boasted a few times on this blog, but St Helena needs to draw inspiration from them.
So what is Saint culture? It’s a debate I’ve had quite a bit over recent months, especially with expat friends on the island. I don’t blame them for having to ask the question. Three years ago Saint candidates in the local general election listed ‘preservation of culture’ on their manifestos, but were unable to define ‘culture’ when questioned. But most Saints at the time, myself included, would have floundered for an adequate response.
Why is this?
Why We Shot The Rabbits
My own explanation: before now, (before the great economic drive), as Saints we’ve never had reason to define our culture. It was just life, an everyday existence.
Fishcakes was just dinner, a tasty dinner, yes, but not a culinary specialty. Fishing itself was survival, not something worthy of documenting; how else do you explain the ridiculous cliffs my father climbed down for the sake of a dozen mackerel. Families kept donkeys to carry spring water for household use. When there was prolonged rain, water was collected instead off asbestos roofs and stored in 45 gallon drums for daily consumption.
Some of these stories have been passed down to me but some I remember. Like two or three shotguns standing in the corner of the living room in my granddad’s house as being normal; these were for shooting rabbits, an important source of food.
Now it would appear these facets of our history are actually fascinating to visitors.
More Than Bread and Dance
Boat handling and ship work in virtually all sea conditions is normal for Saints. Recently I was surprised at how alarmed visiting yachties were by the heavy swells at the wharf while Sharon and I just jumped in the ferry boat with 100% trust in the operator.
Weddings at Christmas, working off-shore, building our own homes, half day Wednesdays, car rides on Sundays and the Scout band marching down Main Street is just how things are; it’s what we do.
Only it’s not just food. It’s not just a parade. It’s more than just a means of bringing goods into the island.
We have only wind shear left to overcome now to join the modern age of jet travel, and suddenly this humble existence that we’ve simply called, ‘life,’ turns out to be our culture; our unique selling point. This is what makes us Saint and makes St Helena special. I know this better now.
Loyal And Dysfunctional
Tourists will be arriving by airplane soon; this culture is what they want to taste, to hear and feel. It can meet the demand of expectation for a unique experience to snap, upload and share.
Much more difficult to quantify to an outsider is the incredible depth and closeness of our community.
People from the ‘big world’ love the novelty of strangers saying “hello” on the street, but it’s more than simply being ‘friendly.’ Our community is a family. Like all families it has its ups and downs; we work, play, laugh, cry, love, fight, fall out and make up. We are as loyal and as proud as any family, and equally as dysfunctional as any family. But we are forever bound by our roots and the common grief of our family tree.
In the short walk down Main Street every face I see is a key that unlocks a deeper story. I know how this family’s rock was their mother; I recall how devoted the husband was to this elderly lady; as a boy I once climbed date trees with this child’s father; I recognise a mother’s striking features in a young child’s smile. The faces keep us forever connected with now and what’s gone before.
But the people I meet also know my story, my history, my loss. Explanations aren’t necessary. We just make time to say “hello,” and smile and perhaps chat about the weather, or the ship or the prices in the shops. From the outside we’re just being ‘friendly.’
How Do We Share Saint Culture
So we have a culture. It’s as simple as it is complex, but I’m beginning to realise how special it is.
But it is also fragile. We are only 4,000 in number on island. If people aren’t made a priority in today’s tourism plan then tomorrow is bleak for the Saint identity.
This raises the question, is it possible to frame and share our hesitant, small island culture with tourists?
Of course it is. Other places already have it sussed, as Sharon and I discovered last year whilst blogging our way through seven countries around the world. To my untrained eye I would suggest it’s done in two stages: education and engagement.
Education comes by designing interesting interfaces that allow tourists to discover local stories, history and traditions at their own pace. Museums of all types are key – we saw how a simple one room house by the side of a country road can be a fascinating museum. Food festivals, walking tours, interactive street art, plaques, information boards and themed public parks. Working government buildings open to the public with optional free tours. Who knew observing legislature in session could be so interesting? There are many ideas. Best of all, we enjoyed the photography exhibitions; educational, entertaining and sometimes harrowing, but always effective.
These interfaces, if done properly, then encourage informed engagement.
Labour Take-On Time
Earlier this month Sharon and I held a photographic exhibition on St Helena, inspired by what we’d seen abroad. ‘Labour Take-On Time’ was our tribute to the men who do the most amazing job of unloading ships here. People and cargo on boats and barges has been a vital part of our culture for more than 500 years; during the days of sail over 1,000 ships called every year.
‘Pride’ was the emotion many Saints expressed after viewing the exhibition plus ‘surprise’ at the realisation that ‘working ship’ (as we call it) is indeed a cultural phenomenon.
‘Appreciation’ was the sentiment conveyed by expats and tourists. The insight into this aspect of Saint life gave them a valuable and fresh perspective of the island people; an appreciation.
This is what good tourism products should do for St Helena. A meeting of pride and appreciation fosters mutual respect and paves the way for engagement; conversation.
As Saints, we have never been good at recognising or framing the uniqueness of our culture; we are going to need help.
But I know now there are people out there who are really good at this sort of thing. I’ve seen it around the world.
How great it would be to see it here too?