Will a new cable-car threaten the peace of Dominica's rainforest wilderness?

Half a century ago the writer Alec Waugh noted that "there is only one way to appreciate Dominica - by walking across and along it". That notion could be challenged by the latest contentious tourist attraction, which is due to open to the public today after years of rancour.

The region's first rainforest aerial tramway has been constructed on this small, mountainous island. It is an open cable-car arrangement, rather like a fairground ride, running across the landscape at treetop height.

The Dominica Aerial Tramway is touted as a premier shore excursion, effectively an adjunct to the cruise-ship industry. Hundreds of cruise passengers will be ferried inland on difficult roads to a base station adjacent to the Unesco World Heritage site of Morne Trois Pitons National Park. Then they will ride across rainforest terrain described by the Smithsonian Institution as "a giant plant laboratory unchanged for 10,000 years", with 167 bird species. The most notable of these is the endangered parrot Amazona Imperialis, "Sisserou" to the locals.

Robert Sommers, the Canadian developer of the scheme, hopes it will emulate the success of a similar model in Costa Rica. At £46 for a "flight" of less than a mile through the canopy it is not cheap either, but offers the chance to glide above the Breakfast River gorge and the (once) Secret Falls.

Given that Dominica comprises largely untrammelled wilderness strong on hiking, adventure and biodiversity, the scheme's detractors argue the country's essence is being undermined, that the "nature isle" is selling its soul.

Often confused with the much larger Dominican Republic, the eastern part of Hispaniola 600 miles to the north-west, English-speaking Dominica lies between the French départements of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Roseau, Dominica's capital, retains a dash of vernacular architecture, all gingerbread fretwork, timber stairwells and cobbled footways. Beaches are sparse around its 290 square miles, and white sand almost non-existent. Some of the heaviest rainfall in the world feeds 300 rivers and six waterfalls more than 100 feet high, with some of the finest dive sites in the West Indies lying immediately offshore.

From lofty promontories further north, the French islands of Guadeloupe and Marie Galante are clearly visible beyond Les Saintes, scene of a battle between the French and English in 1782.

On a rare stretch of white sand at nearby Calibishie, Domcans Cafe has few patrons despite excellent food and a dreamy ambience that captures the backwater mood. A sign creaks in the breeze, begging a response: "The spot where tourists meet". No one takes much notice, but the tramway could change all that.

Dr Lennox Honychurch, Dominica's foremost writer and historian, believes nature may have the last word. He says, "A few years ago the government erected a building near Freshwater Lake which quickly fell apart from the corrosive effects of sulphurous air on metal. I hope the engineers have allowed for it."

Additional research by Josephine Martin

The Dominica Aerial Tramway (001 767 448 8775, www.rainforestrams.com) will operate only when cruise ships are in port,between the hours of about 8am and 5pm. The price is US$69 (£46) per adult; children up to 12 half price

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