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Oil and gas have been a blessing and a curse for this country. A blessing because of the economic prosperity it once brought our way, a curse because it has blinded us to all of the other abundant natural resources that could have sustained us through the times of plunging energy prices.

These twin islands stand apart from other parts of the Caribbean for our biodiversity—97 native mammals, 400 birds, 55 reptiles, 25 amphibians, and 617 butterflies, as well as more than 2,200 species of flowering plants.

All of this against a backdrop of lush rainforest, pristine waterfalls, mangrove swamps and the remote and isolated beaches that are nesting sites for sea turtles.

These can be unique selling points, attracting ecotourists, conservationists and researchers but instead they have been overlooked, left neglected and underdeveloped.

This past week, the news that the Asa Wright Nature Centre was shutting down its ecolodges was greeted in many quarters with alarm and regret.

The facility, ranked among the world’s top ten eco-lodges, was in danger of becoming a casualty of pandemic restrictions as the conservationists and nature lovers that have kept it viable are being kept away by T&T’s closed borders.

An eleventh-hour intervention by Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell offers some hope that Asa Wright will remain fully operational and may once again welcome international visitors in the future.

It should not have come to that, but T&T’s decision-makers have over the years displayed a lack of vision and failed to tap into the potential for ecologically and culturally sustainable tourism which seems such a perfect fit for this country.

Ecotourism, as opposed to more traditional forms of tourism, aims to minimise the impact of human disturbance on natural destinations while providing direct financial benefits to local communities.

Nature Seekers in Matura, which has won acclaim for its work in conservation of nesting Leatherback Turtles, has become a world renown model for the type of community-based activity that can bring visitors and much-needed revenue.

Unfortunately, we have been hampered by a lack of initiative, knowledge, planning, marketing, product development, training and funding of ecotourism.

Much of the blame for that resides with successive governments that continue to focus and invest mostly in the energy sector. The result is a heavy dependency on an industry that is no longer able to sustain us economically.

Some years ago, a Draft Ecotourism Policy developed by academics at the University of the West Indies (UWI) found that T&T “boasts by far the best natural and cultural products in the Caribbean which is competitive on the world market.”

According to that document, we can become the region’s premier eco-adventure destination rivalling others around the world.

It further found that development of ecotourism could “radically change the distribution of wealth in rural communities, placing sustainable incomes in rural areas, thus decentralising the economy.”

Had that been given serious consideration, T&T could have by now established a solid platform for the economic diversification that continues to elude us.

This country is so much more than sun, sand and sea and therein lies an untapped source of wealth.