I never saw myself as a business woman. My passion was protecting the environment through conservation and education. So ending up running a business has come as something of a surprise. It’s important to pursue your passion and follow your dreams. If you work hard, believe in what you are doing, things will materialize and then the rewards. And if you keep focused, you can make a difference.

My first degree was in Environmental Studies, a move, considered career suicide 25 years ago. To many, finding a job in that field was almost impossible. As it turns out I am now an employer and my passion for the environment remains as strong as ever. It wasn’t an easy undertaking, so when a friend mentioned that Welchman Hall Gully’s, having been closed for more than a year, lease was available, I thought it was perfect for me and I jumped at the chance.

Welchman Hall Gully is more than one of Barbados’ oldest nature based tourist attraction. It is a mature tropical forest that hosts many of our native plants and animals which are very much part of the natural history of Barbados. Most of our native plants are found in small pockets in gullies and most of our native fauna live there as well. As for the last almost 10 years, it has developed in a conservation/educational centre. It now offers nature camps, educational tours/activities, a native plant conservation, weddings, birthday parties, volunteers from national and international students and scientists who carry out research. Recently added is an adventure park with a kid friendly zip line, swing rope, tight rope and tree house. Some of these activities generate income; others just give back to Barbados.

For many years I only had one full-time gardener, but many people who share my passion for this special place have helped along the way. From volunteers, local and international students, corporate sponsors, individual donors and my landlord, the Barbados National Trust, have all been part of the success. I really just feel like the caretaker. These supporters are helping preserve a crucial part of our island’s environment. They are creating and renewing a sustainable space where our children can learn about nature and where visitors can understand some of our cultural and natural history. And when people invest in the gully, they are investing in the future of Barbados. This support is not a traditional investment. What they contribute stays with Welchman Hall Gully: the dividend is not measured in dollars and cents. It is an enduring legacy. However, life has not been without problems and challenges.

Damage caused by Tropical Storm Tomas in 2010 nearly bankrupted me, but many companies told me I could pay them when I had money. This community spirit kept the gully open. But, I kept focus on what this was all about. Marketing has also been tough, having a budget of Harrison’s Cave would certainly help, but marketing companies like TripAdvisor have been invaluable. But despite all this, slowly the gully is turning around. My gardener has taught me that you can’t accomplished everything overnight. I keep this in my mind when I get overwhelmed: we only make real change, he said, “piece by piece”.

Overall, I have learned that the tourism market in Barbados is a hard nut to crack. Running a small company in this very competitive industry is not easy. Big businesses take care of themselves and not all small businesses support each other. If the cruise ship industry support, even with half per cent of their passengers, small attractions would benefit. The more we work together, the greater our chances of success. And while the big hotels, cruise ships and tourism operations are important to our island’s economic security, small individual attractions are crucial, whether they are restaurants, potteries, gardens or dive shops. They enrich the visitor experience. And it sends a clear message to overseas visitors: we Bajans care about our island and we care about our future.

Barbados has so much to offer and yet so much of it remains unexplored by tourists. It is only through small attractions and other small businesses that the island will truly open up and offer fresh and exciting experiences. I am fortunate to have some great staff who enjoy what they do. But none of the success at the gully would have been possible without passion and enthusiasm, community spirit and support from those who care about Barbados and the natural environment. Only through conservation, education and engaging people at a local level is there any hope for a sustainable future. So, following your passion can pay off.

Almost 10 years later, I still love every minute at Welchman Hall Gully. I joke that the forest is my office. But I know I am just a caretaker, looking after the gully for future generations. There have been many before. I hope many will follow.

About the Author

Debra Branker - Director, Welchman Hall Gully

Debra Branker is the director of Welchman Hall Gully in the parish of St. Thomas. She privately leases it from the Barbados National Trust. She holds two degrees: an Honours degree in Environmental Studies, Carleton University, Canada and a MSC in Ethnobotany from the University of Kent, UK.