THINGS THAT MATTER - Curacao and its model UNESCO World Heritage Site

Almost four years ago, the Barbados National Trust inaugurated and hosted the First Caribbean Conference of National Trusts and Preservation Societies – on May 8–11, 2014. Our goals were to promote heritage tourism through partnerships in preserving our shared heritage; to sensitise governments and our people to the huge value of our heritage, for historical, cultural, aesthetic and economic reasons; to connect and network with wealthier and older National Trusts and the International National Trust; to share examples of historic sites and to share solutions; to develop successful partnerships both for technical support and fund-raising; to help in achieving other UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Caribbean; and to promote both broader recognition of the importance of preserving our heritage and recognition of the Caribbean as not just a sun, sand and sea destination, but “a region with everything and especially rich in cultural heritage”.

The conference was a huge success. It brought together 13 Caribbean countries, 75 participants and four international keynote speakers. The rave reviews at the end of the Sunday Island Tour were a source of great satisfaction, with many saying “Wow! The best day of my life!” But best of all is the way the baby has grown. Trinidad and Tobago hosted an even bigger and better Second Conference two years later, and Curacao has just hosted a simply amazing 3rd Caribbean Conference of National Trusts and Preservation Societies, in their splendid UNESCO World Heritage site, Willemstad.

Willemstad was inscribed by UNESCO 20 years ago. Its prosperity in the 19th century due to international trade produced a splendid architectural tradition, in the Curacao Baroque style. The oldest part of the city was the once walled area, the Punda, recognised the world over by its elegant and colourful Dutch buildings on the waterfront. Following the dramatic development of Curacao as a centre for oil refinery, suburbanisation occurred and the old city of Willemstad decayed in the 1960s and 70s, like many Caribbean waterfront cities.

But the citizens of this amazing country with no natural resources of its own, recognised the value of their heritage. The conference, co-hosted by the Curacao Monuments Foundation and the Curacao Monuments Fund Foundation, told the story of the amazing restoration of this impressive built heritage, while highlighting adaptive re-use of historic buildings, financing preservation, the value of the underwater heritage, and the importance of marketing and branding heritage. This last lecture, by Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, of the Bahamas and formerly of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, had particular relevance because of the little recognition given by most of our tourism authorities to our fascinating built heritage. There were many valuable papers and I was also impressed with the poster telling the story of Nelson Island, off Trinidad, by John Morris of the T and T National Trust. From Barbados, Dr. Tara Innis spoke on the new Caribbean Heritage Network while I spoke on Adaptive Re-use: Successes and Failures, Secrets and Gremlins.

Michael Newton, whom I saw as the energy behind a great organising team, spoke on the first morning on Willemstad, the World Heritage city. There are some 800 listed monuments (buildings) in the city – in the central Punda, with its splendid Fort Amsterdam and Governor’s residence (where a reception was held, with the best Curacao cuisine); the old suburbs of Pietermaalweg and Scharloo and the “newer” 19th century expansion across the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge – Otrobanda. On past visits to lecture I’ve photographed the elegant Scharloo residences and the newer-old Otrobanda buildings, and I was impressed by the transformation since my first visit 30 years ago. It’s a restoration story both prompting and then catalysed by the UNESCO inscription. And their magnificent Mikvé Israel – Emanuel Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western hemisphere.

It turns out that their preservation foundations own 130 buildings and have been systematically restoring, renting and putting them to use – adaptive re-use. It was explained that in the first decade of the programme most were restored and rented as offices, but increasingly the renewed attraction of the city has created a desire for residences and other uses. The Otrobanda especially, where we stayed at the Renaissance Resort, was alive day and night, with multiple restaurants, park space, music, and a mall inside of the old Rif Fort. It was a revelation to see a decaying historic city brought back to life by investment in restoration. The battle isn’t over, of course, with other abandoned buildings needing restoration, but it’s the most remarkable success story in the Caribbean.

There was a Sunday island tour to see some of the landuis – the land houses (old plantation houses) at the Western end of the island. These houses are unique adaptations of Dutch architecture, with Dutch gables but built a single room wide for ventilation from the East, with wide open verandas on both long sides. All are elevated, with terraces to back and front, and some with guard houses or out houses at the corners of the terraces. Their history is told in a wonderful book - Kas di shon: Plantation houses on Curacao: Past and Present; and there’s a tentative UNESCO nomination of a group of them, including Knip where the slave revolt led by historical hero Tula began, and Savonet, site of a community village tourism plan.

But wait! What impact has all this had on the marketing of Curacao’s tourism? Believe it or not, in their entire big, glossy hotel room book about the country (a Curacao version of our magnificent Ins and Outs of Barbados) there were just two sentences about their unique heritage: “Punda is the oldest district of the capital of Curacao, Willemstad and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The colourful Dutch colonial buildings are used for a vast array of shops, restaurants and cultural activities.” And 90 % of the book simply advertised the goods in these shops …

And so, back to the goals of these conferences – to show that the Caribbean is not just a Sun, Sand and Sea destination, but a region with everything and especially rich in cultural heritage, and the importance of Mr. Vanterpool-Wallace’s lecture on marketing and branding our unique heritage. That’s what sells Egypt, Greece, Mexico and Britain. Here in Barbados, where our World Heritage Management Plan can be summarised by “Keep doing what you’re doing (or not doing), without money or incentive to speak of”, will we learn a lesson from Curacao? Or will we leave our National Hero Mr. Barrow’s official residence Culloden Farm, the Empire Theatre and the rest of the Derelict Dozen of our World Heritage site to decay or burn down? Will we save our UNESCO inscription, with its huge value to tourism? Will we have anything to report at the 4th Caribbean Conference in Bermuda in March 2019? Will we live the quotes below?

Independence Quotes: “So, as we work through present challenges … let us ensure that the strength of this nation’s true character continues to shine for all the world to see.” (The Prime Minister)

“I have a deep and abiding faith, my friends, in the ability of every Barbadian to contribute to the success of our nation once given the opportunity to do so.” (Leader of the Opposition)

Brickbat: I was shocked to read last week that the Transport Board has more than 125 buses off the road, and that the Board has a Trinidadian consultant sourcing parts and other functions to improve efficiencies. This is equally unbelievable!

Sympathy: To the family of my friend Arthur Streetly: To his wonderful wife Elizabeth Sydney (“Sidi”) Preece (the passion of his life); to Tish and Paul, and his many friends and admirers. Arthur was a legend at The Lodge School, graduating in 1961, and after a distinguished life in every way (and becoming a true Bajan in his later years) passed on November 16th. More on Arthur anon.

Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website:

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