A year ago I wrote that there was opportunity hidden amidst the wreckage of Irma and Maria and that we just needed the wherewithal and the courage to find it. I wrote that things must not return to what they were, that we needed to make brave decisions to innovate and pivot away from the status quo to build a society not just equipped to survive another catastrophic event, but thrive in ways we have not heretofore been able to do. I asked if we had the collective bravery required to do that.
A year on, many things have returned to normal. This in itself, I think, is a problem. While returning as many things as possible to their previous state may assist us in a therapeutic fashion, it also means returning to many of the systemic issues we struggled with. Once again we seem to be facing a compromised sewerage network, water shortages, blackouts, traffic congestion, and less than stellar service from our telecommunications providers. Even the ways in which we think about the impact of the storm seem too narrow. We officially recognise four casualties from Irma, ignoring the many who passed in the weeks and months after due to its indirect effects.
A year ago, I appealed to the dreamers amongst us to imagine an energy provider no longer beholden to fossil fuels in this sun-drenched quarter of the globe; a territory-wide network of underground utilities (water, electricity, telecommunications) to ensure that those services can be quickly restored; and green spaces and pedestrian zones in Road Town. I argued that now was our opportunity to build this place into the legacy we truly wish to leave for our children.
A year on, we seem to be ready to demand more from our political system and our prospective leaders. In some quarters online, the civic energy and drive to see this chain of islands evolve is inspirational.
At the same time, our relationship with the United Kingdom continues to morph and contort in confusing ways. After a sluggish response to Irma that was widely panned in the left-leaning press, the British government ensured that there was a highly visible navy presence in the islands’ immediate recovery. They have been followed by a less visible contingent of specialists, consultants and other advisors. But we keep getting mixed signals.
Alongside this practical and technical assistance in our recovery, we can point to the loan guarantee that was offered as opposed to more actual and material aid, as well as the establishment of the Recovery and Development Agency, as moves that considerably cloud the waters with respect to the UK’s intentions for the Virgin Islands’ recovery. But aside from all that, the single most destabilising act on the UK’s part over the past year must be the passage of the amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill that seeks to force the overseas territories to implement public registers of beneficial ownership in their financial services industries by 2020. It appears to be a situation of give with one hand, take with the other.
Most leaders of overseas territories reacted strongly to what they see as a constitutional overreach by the UK. Locally, thousands attended a protest march through the streets of Road Town that ended at the Governor’s Office. Two weeks later, the governor released a video reminding residents of the support received from the UK following Irma. This support included 107 tonnes of material aid, about $17 million in grants (Dominica received in excess of $60 million), and a loan guarantee of up to about $400 million.
The cost of Irma and Maria’s destruction is in the billions not counting lost business. In May, the major cruise lines Disney and Norwegian were still not ready to put the VI back on their itineraries. Many hotels and businesses were levelled and will not be rebuilt. Now the one pillar left is beginning to crumble. Never before has the future been this uncertain here.
The act, however ironically, has triggered the sorts of conversations that we have needed to have for at least a generation. Only now are we willing to critically evaluate our relationship with the UK and consider a future with or without it. We seem to realise that putting all of our hopes for the future in the financial services industry might be an error in judgment. The former director of the BVI London Office, Benito Wheatley, has argued that we need to rebalance our economy from its overreliance on that sector and instead pivot towards a more tourism focused model. I believe that he is right in the short term. I also believe that our tourism infrastructure requires a great deal of investment, but not necessarily in more marinas and hotels in the immediate future.
The most pressing need for tourism development over the next five to ten years must be substantial investment in our historical sites and our cultural product. All of our sites of historical and cultural importance must be developed into sites that our visitors can patronise in order to learn what makes the VI the VI and not just another scenic stop on their calendars.
Such development can spur entrepreneurship opportunities as well, but would mean little unless the roads to those sites are dramatically improved, and unless those sites are all equipped when necessary with water, power and telecommunications.
We must learn that we cannot distinguish ourselves or our tourism product if we market ourselves as just sea and sand. As I write this, Disney’s cruise lines have returned to our shores. It would seem that we need to begin that sort of work immediately.
‘A new awareness’
These several developments have propelled the VI and its people to this critical moment in its history. More and more we are beginning to realise that the status quo, both in terms of our local politics and our relationship with Britain, has not worked as it should and is no longer sustainable. With each passing week, the islands are inching towards a new awareness, towards a compulsion to make something frighteningly new out of the wreckage of the past year.