Luxury developments from which local people are excluded have unhappy consequences, says David Allsop. But Alice Charles, whose family is from the island, believes it is still a special place
THE PITONS, the velvety green plugs of volcanic rock which rise abruptly from the Caribbean, are the most recognisable of the many exotic images associated with the island of St Lucia. But there are other images which are no less part of the island's identity. Consider, for example, the tide of non bio-degradable rubbish which threatens to engulf many of the beaches, most of the roadsides - and even the beleaguered signs which optimistically proclaim "No Dumping!" Some of the more disillusioned returning holidaymakers might also remember the unremitting and uninvited attention from hordes of "vendors".

In a depressing number of cases the standard island greeting of "Welcome to Paradise!" is accompanied by a request to part with $10 for, at best, a piece of coconut which is supposed to resemble a hummingbird; at worst, insistent demands to part with a similar sum in return for what is euphemistically called "help". Recent visitors to St Lucia may recognise this problem, and recall the hissed malediction "Salop!" (the most offensive of patois insults) when they declined to pay up. It is a sad reflection on a country which once enjoyed a reputation for genuine hospitality that it is now almost impossible for a tourist to walk through a centre of population without being harried by vendors or "guides".

Canadian Alison Murphy, a former resident of St Lucia whose father designed the exclusive Anse Chastanet resort, told me that in the four years since she last visited, the incidence of harassment had risen dramatically. "When the Gablewood shopping mall was opened on the outskirts of Castries five years ago, it was the showcase of the Caribbean. It is now a focus for drug dealers, beggars, pimps and just about every other social misfit that a woman travelling alone does not really want to meet, but unfortunately can't any longer avoid."

On another occasion, as we were leaving the Mineral Falls near Soufriere, a clearly distressed German woman backpacker ran up imploring me to pretend to be her husband. Close on her heels was a representative of a type Miss Murphy describes as a "virtual mugger" - someone who will not demand money (or worse) with menaces, but will refuse to go away until paid. In this instance the tourist had been followed for four miles along a main road.

It is of course unfortunately true in many parts of the world, including Britain, that single women travelling alone must be prepared for some measure of harassment. But Alison Murphy, who was born in Guyana, claims that it has reached epidemic proportions in St Lucia. "I can't lie on a beach without being pestered," she said, adding that when she lived on the island in the 1970s she could not recall a single similar instance of unwelcome attention.

One unfortunate trend is for tourists to stay on yachts or in private resorts and rarely venture beyond their poop decks or barbed wire fences. The reluctance to leave the confines of private resorts is certainly true of the British, where the virus of the "compound" mentality, lately spread from other parts of the Caribbean, seems to have infected our independent spirit.

Colin Hunte, a St Lucian who owns the Villa Beach holiday cottages in Choc Bay, is concerned about the proliferation of the all-inclusive resorts on the island - now numbering more than 10. These British, American and Jamaican-owned operations generally bar non-residents and encourage their guests to use only their own facilities.

"They put nothing into the local economy, import their own food from the US and their rattan furniture from Malaysia, alienate the islanders who don't work for them and - worst of all - provide a sort of artificial holiday experience in which the guests could be anywhere in the world," he says. He cites an example of a doctor being called out to treat a guest in one of the all-inclusive resorts. "A young guy just arrived from England drank himself unconscious and suffered sunstroke by the pool. After treating him, my friend presented a bill for 50 East Caribbean dollars, which the guy was unable to pay. He had been told in Britain to leave his money and credit cards at home because everything was included in the holiday price. Is it any surprise that confronted with that sort of behaviour, the local people become upset?"

The explosion of tourism in St Lucia has triggered more than simply bruised feelings among the populace. It has created a rip-off culture, where even some licensed taxi drivers will charge twice the quoted fare. "That was per person" is the usual explanation until you learn to forestall it by establishing the exact price in advance. But faced with a pounds 80 charge at the end a 10-mile journey by water taxi, it is difficult to reason with a crew of three when your luggage is being dangled over 30ft of water. Driving around in a hire car is no guarantee of hassle-free travelling either; easily identified by your H-registration it is common to be flagged down and asked for money to "guide" you a couple of hundred yards along the road.

But it is hard to blame the vendors and so-called guides for adopting a cynical attitude. The industry brings rewards at the expense of more traditional occupations. St Lucia is a desperately poor island with no welfare system, no free health service, massive unemployment and a weak economy shattered by the end of the quota system for exporting bananas to the UK. "We used to have just beaches and bananas," says Colin Hunte. "Now we've just got beaches." Another hotelier told us that most St Lucians own, or have access to, small areas of fertile land. "But why spend days sweating to grow fruit or nuts for a few dollars a day, when they can get $10 a time by selling beads to tourists?"

With the insidious growth of the holiday compounds, many of the most beautiful regions are now prohibited to the islanders, causing additional resentment. A licensed stall-keeper on Choc Bay told us that he is routinely threatened with arrest by security guards at an all-inclusive resort for setting foot on "their" beach. "What's really bad is that they're my own people," he said. "And there's no such thing as a private beach in this country."

The tragedy of this negative side of holidaying in St Lucia is that this is one of the most desirable holiday destinations. There are scores of attractive small inns, mostly free of imported rattan furniture, and offering excellent value at about pounds 40 per room per night, including taxes.

The mechanism for a smooth-running tourist industry is already in place and needs only some urgent fine-tuning to get it right. "We need to discourage all-inclusive resorts," says Colin Hunte. "We must create official wardens with proper powers to organise the cleaning of beaches and roadsides, and encourage the growth of St Lucian-owned holiday businesses."

Meanwhile, if you are planning an independent trip of the island, go armed with a fixed smile, a thick skin and a pair of cloth ears. Even the most persistent of virtual muggers gives up eventually. DA