The interview of Laura Vanninen
17 mayo, 2012
I wanted to interview Laura Vanninen, my mother’s cousin and an English entrepreneur from the Caribbean island of Antigua and Barbuda. I thought it would be a great opportunity to hear opinions and thoughts from a local person who could also view the island’s situation as an outsider and as an immigrant with her own business. It was also fascinating to know if there were any signs of the shared colonial history of the islanders and the westerners. My hopes became true as Laura told me about life on the island passionately and professionally. Laura, who was born in Finland, is now living on the island with her two children, Alexander and Lucas and their father Sam.
Laura smiles on the other side of the screen as I ask her on Skype how on earth she ended up in Antigua. She met Sam, a boat captain, on her holidays in Antigua and after the holiday romance she returned to London. However Sam sent her a request for help and she wound up as a chef on a megayacht. “My one week of cooking on the boat turned into a full time job for two years”, she recalls.
After dating offshore, as Sam was the captain of the same boat, they decided to settle down on the shore and start a family. Antigua felt the best option due to the expat British community, British schooling opportunities and Sam’s father, who had retired to the island. During a yard period in Antigua Laura met Janie Easton, an English lady who had run the same boutique for the last 40 years and was now about to sell it away. After buying the shop from her, Laura moved permanently to Antigua in May 2008. Ever since, she has been the owner of the Galley Boutique in Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour selling swimwear and resortwear for women but also having a small selection for men and children.
She describes her customers consisting of the passing tourists, the customers in terms of crew, owners and guests from the yachts but also the second home owners and the local expat market. When it comes to the recession she tells me that her sales are nowadays only half what they used to be five years ago. “We have to work hard to make sales, whereas in the past the clothes just sold themselves”, she continues. At the peak they could sell three to four garments at the time for the wealthy second home owners who now leave the boutique with only one swimsuit in their shopping bag.
When we start discussing about the government and how easy it was for her to start with the business, Laura sighs. “It is incredibly difficult and frustrating trying to do business anywhere in the Caribbean. In Antigua a large per cent of the population is employed by the government and dealings with government departments are made difficult by petty bureaucracy. There are few set rules and the rules will change depending on which official is on duty at the time”, she continues. “It really depends on who you know and who can pull strings to get things done.” She is also chagrined while telling that it isn’t generally applauded when foreigners set up their businesses to the island bringing money in as any other locals.
What about the lamentable past and can it still be seen in the everyday life? It isn’t easy for Laura to talk about it but she mentions that there is still some resentment at having to serve the white tourists coming in. This is very unfortunate but everybody in the island knows how crucial the tourism is for them to survive. Over half of the island’s GDP comes from the tourism sector and there doesn’t seem to be another considerable option besides it.
There is no industry on the island and the dry land and the reluctance of the islanders to work on the land because of their past prevent the chances of any agriculture. Laura thinks that one of the best solutions the government could do is to make the island duty free. That would not only boom the tourism even more but also making business would become more efficient. She also wants to emphasize the importance of protecting the island’s natural assets for the sake of everyone.
In terms of her future on the island, she is still a bit uncertain how things will eventually end up. It depends on how her family enjoys their life on the small island and how well she is able to earn a living despite the tough past few years. She still seems determined and sincerely happy on her home island and ends our discussion with summarizing her feelings: “I really would like to see a more equal society, a fairer society, but it is a beautiful country with a great climate and some wonderful people. I am glad it is my home and happy to raise my boys here, in a safer, freer environment than in London.”