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Tobago faces a delicate balancing act

CROWN POINT, Tobago — The winding roads of Tobago still cross unfenced fields where goats graze and run along white-sand beaches unspoiled by the hordes of tourists invading other islands.

The charm for many visitors is that Tobago has few large resorts and still feels isolated. If all-inclusive hotels were to start popping up along the beaches, it would ruin the island's atmosphere, said Alison Booth, a 42-year-old visitor from Cambridge, England.

"We wouldn't come here then," she said after a session of windsurfing off one of the Caribbean island's beaches.

Trinidad and Tobago's government is seeking to expand tourism to decrease the country's reliance on its oil and gas reserves, but many say the task is a balancing act: Develop the island too much and it loses its appeal.

For travelers seeking wilderness, Tobago has waterfalls and rain forests unlike few places in the Caribbean.

Some say the island of 55,000 people is the land of Robinson Crusoe, the famed shipwreck survivor in Daniel Defoe's 18th-century novel. There is a cave here named for Crusoe. Along beaches set against turquoise seas, small shacks sell curried crab and shark sandwiches.

But some officials and developers see a potential to draw more money from tourism. Over the next three years, the government plans to spend $51 million on marketing and incentives to airlines to attract more tourists.

The spending is being coupled with a $15 million expansion of Tobago's Crown Point International Airport to prepare it for more arrivals.

In May, the airline Virgin Atlantic plans to begin flights to the island from London, joining British Airways and several smaller regional airlines that already serve Tobago.

Government officials say they want to be careful to avoid overdevelopment. They are under pressure from environmentalists and residents who don't want to see too many hotels and condos.

The pressure for development already is generating tension. A company that owns land along the popular beach at Pigeon Point wants to restrict access for fishermen and has sued to evict vendors. Some residents say they're worried plans could be under way there for a new resort.

Two years ago, a 200-room Hilton resort opened, complete with additional villas and a golf course.

Environmentalists protested its opening, fearing sewage and runoff from the golf course would damage coral reefs. The hotel's general manager, Ali Khan, said the Hilton was designed to cause as little environmental damage as possible and that future development could be similarly planned.

The government hopes to attract one more big-name resort but is not aiming for an influx, said Neil Wilson, Tobago's tourism secretary.

He and other officials see tourism as one of the best ways to help the economy on the island, where about 12 percent are unemployed and poor villages dot its mountain jungles.

Tobago is historically poorer than larger Trinidad and is a five-to-six-hour ferry ride away from the national capital of Port-of-Spain.