Paradise Holiday: Tourism or Neocolonialism in the Caribbean?

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Tourism Revolution

September 13, 2018

St. Kitts and Nevis, the last of the Lesser Antilles to be decolonized, received independence from the United Kingdom in 1983. Since then, the Caribbean isles have sustained themselves on the increasing commodification of sun and surf. Tourism in the islands is by far the biggest industry, accounting for 15% of the region’s GDP, and eclipsing the manufacturing and agricultural exports for which the isles were known.[1] This new industry in the West Indies is a pernicious reminder of an imperial past and evidence of a colonial legacy. While tourism buoys the economies of these island nations, holidaymakers have exacerbated acculturation. Have the islands truly entered a postcolonial era in which economic development and political governance is by and for the people, or are they mired in latent neocolonialism?

Cultural critic Ian Gregory Strachan provokes the question in his vehement assessment of tourism, Paradise and Plantation, arguing that “the Caribbean finds itself again coveted for its natural resources – this time, though, not for gold, silver, pearls, tobacco, cotton, or sugar, but for sun, sand, and sea.”[2] The region has obtained political sovereignty, but it now faces the invisible and insidious instruments of neocolonialism:

No longer is the imagined Caribbean paradise a site where wealth can be attained in the money form (gold) or acquired via the export of commodities (sugar, tobacco, and cotton). The site is now a sight. Now the Caribbean paradise is wealth; it is the commodity for sale; and it is profit. The paradise is now both myth and material good. Like the plantation that gave birth to it, Caribbean tourism is rooted in export, the export of paradise to North America and Europe.[3]

Tourism, with its attendant service industry and dependence on foreign influence, bears glaring resemblance to colonial rule. All-inclusive resorts have replaced plantations, hotels supplanted great houses, and taxis outnumber private drivers. The promise of independence is limited by the growing service industry. Unsurprisingly, labor breaks down along historically-entrenched social and racial lines, and many local residents are pushed into service to foreigners without opportunities for advancement. Indeed, Jamaica Kincaid describes the Antiguan Hotel Training school as “a school that teaches Antiguans how to be good servants, how to be a good nobody, which is what a servant is.”[4]

The islands promoted tourism after independence as the new lifeblood of their economies. By associating the industry with power and prosperity, the governments claimed it would bring “modernism” and “development” to the isles and lift Caribbean peoples out of poverty. While it stimulated the economy, attracted money, and produced jobs for locals, local economies were never able to capture the promised profits. Anthropologist George Gmelch describes how tourism fails to have meaningful economic impact on the islands in his study of the working lives of Caribbean tourism, Behind The Smile. He explains how tourism’s effects are measured in “leakage” describing how “the real economic benefits of tourism to a country are not revealed by gross foreign exchange earnings but by what is leftover after deducting the amount which stays or returns overseas.”[5] In the era of globalized, all-inclusive tourism, economic benefits for the local economy – profit for local residents, businesses, and governments – are insignificant. The money goes straight into the pockets of foreign-owned resorts, cruise lines, and pre-booked tours.

St. Lucian Poet Laureate Derek Walcott brings the conflict of foreign interest and local custom into focus in the late 20th century with his poem “Omeros” by revealing his distaste for the tourist industry, particularly the way visitors conceive of the island as a commodity. Walcott employs a “souvenir idiom,” imagining tourists admiring “the gold sea flat as a credit card” and sitting on the beach in the shade of a thicket of “palm‐printed cloth.”[6] The “souvenir idiom” captures the attitude and outlook of those who see everything as merchandise to be purchased and consumed. Walcott is concerned about the consequences of commercializing the island: “I saw. . .that other life going in its ‘change for the best,’ its peace paralyzed in a postcard, a concrete future ahead of it all, in the cinder‐blocks of hotel development.”[7] For Walcott, a future characterized by the “souvenir idiom” is untenable, and he condemns it as a future of paralysis rather than peace. Walcott saves his harshest words for tourists: “There was a lot in the island that Maud hated: insects of any kind, especially rain flies; small riddling termites that cored houses into shells; barefoot Americans strolling into the banks – there was a plague of them now, worse than the insects who, at least, were natives.”[8] His disparaging language about visitors to St. Lucia is consistent with attitudes toward tourists globally, from Lisbon to Honolulu. Variously described as a plague, wave, and invasion, tourism has come to represent the latest form of foreign domination in local areas. Given the history of imperialism and colonialism in these places, the analogies are apt.

We must find new models of travel that do not rely on power differentials or perpetuate neocolonial practices. Holiday vacation or holiday invasion? The choice is ours.

Notes:
1. “Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2018 Caribbean,” World Travel and Tourism Council, https://www.wttc.org/-/media/files/reports/economic-impact-research/regions-2018/caribbean2018.pdf.

2. Ian Gregory Strachan, Paradise and Plantation: Tourism and Culture in the Anglophone Caribbean (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2003),2.

3. Ibid., 112.

4. Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (New York City, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 55.

5. George Gmelch, Behind the Smile: the Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2003), 10.

6. Derek Walcott, Omeros (New York City, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 37, 229.

7. Ibid., 227.

8. Ibid., 62.