Ulrike Frenking was keen to explore local nature and specifically the bat caves of Mt Tamana, one of our natural attractions and a promoted destination for visitors interested in ecotourism. Unfortunately Frenking, 65, simply disappeared while exploring the area with her husband Heribert and son Tobias. She suddenly fell 25 feet into a hole in one of the caves at the location.
Her son immediately acted, asking their guide to tie a rope to a tree and he descended to find his mother, thankfully alive but with damage to her knee which required her to be rescued. Intrepid villagers rigged a makeshift crane and over three hours, managed to engineer a rig that lifted the injured Frenking out of the hole. She is recovering after being treated at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, where three pins were inserted into her leg. Frenking's enthusiasm is apparently undimmed. Her son is trying to find activities for her which she can engage in while on crutches.
This unfortunate incident is a signal for the Ministry of Tourism to get serious about the natural attractions it so enthusiastically advertises, ensuring that potentially dangerous sites are properly marked with appropriate signage and that guides are notified about the changing nuances of these often-remote locations.
There is a delicate balance to be found between safety and the preservation of natural wonder. The response of the villagers to the situation is commendable and suggests that there should be capacity developed near these distant locations among residents to respond effectively as first responders to emergencies that may arise.
Ulrike Frenking was lucky. In August 2017, Richard Baird went on a hike with the Fitness Walkers/Island Hikers group and went missing. Baird, 55, and a father of six, fell down a precipice and broke his neck. The Hiking Association of TT was not pleased about the recalcitrance of the hiking group to explain its operations, or to demonstrate reform of its practices, and in the face of what appeared to be a casual response to possible negligence, expelled the group from its ranks. The limits of that action are clear. Island Hikers continues to promote tours on its website and has a full schedule of events for 2019.
A 2009 draft Ecotourism Policy developed for discussion clearly identified the critical shortfalls in our enthusiastic promotion of ecotourism. It stated, in part that “due to a lack of serious effort and understanding on successive governments and the local business community’s part, and lack of funding of the local professionals in the ecotourism industry, this amazing potential has never been actualised.”
Nothing has changed since then, and it’s clearly time to either take ecotourism seriously or to stop pretending that we do.