After the sugar market collapsed, the islands of the Caribbean have dealt with poverty and overcrowding as the resources of their island economies have proven to be too few and the cost of importing their necessities have become too high. In the 1960s, the solution seems to have been tourism. In 1995 there was a coming together of Caribbean leaders known as the Association of Caribbean States in Port of Spain, Trinidad. This conference focused on tourism, trade, and transport. The political leaders present came to the conclusion that tourism is likely to be the only way their economies can survive (Polly Pattullo ix). However, these same beacons of hope for future prosperity also echo the regions dim history of colonial control and exploitation. Tourism in the Caribbean has both positive and negative effects on the local populations.
As the tiny island nations of the Caribbean ran out of traditional resources, they turned to sand and sun, the two things that the Caribbean is not likely to run out of, in order to stimulate their economies. Their nearly supply of warm temperatures, cool ocean breezes, and spectacular ocean views make the tourism industry a natural fit for these islands. But there are other benefits that the tourism industry can bring to the Caribbean islands.
The tourism industry creates service jobs. Jobs at the tourist hotels such as janitors, cleaning ladies, servers, and bartenders are open for locals to make a living in the direct employ of the resorts. Although these are some of the lower paying jobs, they are jobs with a steady paycheck and good job security. For those with a little more entrepreneurial spirit, tourism brings in people who want an authentic souvenir of their stay on the island; therefore, local craftsmen are in demand to create the baubles and trinkets that tourists enjoy. Then, these craftsmen can sell these items directly to the tourists, or they can sell to a vendor who will interact with the tourists. Additionally, these tourists can be can be attracted to the local restaurants or bars which then benefit from the influx of foreign money.
The tourism industry brings in a major influx of cash to an otherwise poor economy. But this is not just any kind of cash; the relative closeness of the islands of the Caribbean to the United States brings large numbers of American tourists and with them comes the U.S. dollar. The national currency of a nation that is known to be teetering on the brink of insolvency makes a poor medium for trade. However, the relative strength of the American currency compared to their national currencies gives these nations an attractive currency with which to conduct international business. Additionally, income from the tourist resorts can be used to promote urban development. According to Pattullo, “While hotels are built for tourists, at least some features of the infrastructure are in the public domain…. Better water, telephone and electric supplies, driven by the tourist agenda, are shared by locals… To pay for such tourist management and infrastructural development, governments levy taxes on the tourist sector” (Pattullo 32-33). Government money can also be used to build public transportation systems, beautify public parks, or set up tourist information booths; all of these improvements could be seen as an investment in the future of the tourism business as well as an improvement to the quality of life of the locals. However, some counter that the downsides to tourism negate every one of the positive impacts and may even do more harm than good.
According to George Gmelch, some of the detractors feel that tourism is a new form of colonialism. He goes on to say, “Neocolonialism takes power from the local and regional levels and concentrates it in the hands of foreign-owned companies” (Gmelch 36). Although the comparison of tourism to a dark time in this region’s past can seem like a ploy to manipulate people on the basis of their negative emotions in regard to the destructive exploitation of colonialism, there are some similarities that make this comparison more than just a tool of manipulation. Both the tourism industry and the plantation system of old colonialism are foreign owned, capital intensive, monocultural industries that funnel most of their profit out of the region (class notes). The all-inclusive resorts that have been popping up since the late 1980s are some of the worst in regard to funneling money out of the region (Pattullo 74-75). Tourists pay in advance for all their food, lodging, and entertainment. These resorts also discourage the tourists from leaving the hotel grounds citing possible health concerns about eating from the restaurants in town not to mention the danger of pickpockets or other street crime. And once the resorts have the tourists tucked away safely inside the resort walls, they have their food furniture and other items imported from the United States. They claim that the tourists demand food and accommodations that they are already familiar with; therefore, the resorts milk the tourists for all the money they can while losing as little as possible to the local economy (class notes). According to Pattullo’s summary of a survey of 11 of Jamaica’s 19 all inclusive hotels, “…All inclusive hotels generate the largest amount of revenue but their impact on the economy is smaller per dollar of revenue than other accommodation subsectors” (Pattullo 75-76). Although the instruction of neocolonialism sounds like a good argument against the state of tourism in the Caribbean, it is not the only problem with tourism in general.
The tourism industry can lead to bad manners, faulty expectations of wealth, and the debasement off local culture. Rude people and bad manners may seem like a small thing, but when ones economy relies on smiles and friendliness in order to make a buck, people’s attitudes can make a huge difference. Although it may seem obvious that resort workers should be friendly and polite, sometimes this can be a tall order for people that make a meager living catering to the whims of the wealthy foreigners. These wealthy tourists want everything perfect and right now. In the face of such demands, many hotel workers not to mention other people not involved directly with the tourist industry feel justified in ignoring, insulting, or cheating the tourists. But in an economy that makes its money by treating people kindly and making them want to return, bad behavior is a losing strategy. But the mingling of poor locals and wealthy foreigners has can do more than just prompt people to behave badly. The poor locals see the tourists with money to throw around, and they see the tourists make exorbitant purchases without thinking twice. However, the locals do not see the months of saving and years of planning that many of these tourists need to live this lifestyle for a few short weeks, and the poor people of the Caribbean may start to think that this wasteful lifestyle is how one ought to live on a day to day basis. This example could lead locals to spend their money as soon as it is earned, and this free spending lifestyle could be disastrous for someone on limited means. But not all of the problems of tourism manifest themselves through the economy. The tourist trade often demands that the locals put away their culture and acquiesce to the cultural norms of whatever tourist group that predominates at the moment. According to Pattullo, “The Caribbean, it was argued, was not defined by its own peoples, but by tourists and others according to their own needs and preconceptions of sunbaked islands” (Pattullo 180). But as it seems the business of tourism is here to stay, so these problems need to be addressed in a productive manner with an eye on minimizing these negative impacts.
While the positive and negative effects of tourism in the Caribbean seem to be inextricably intertwined, the solution to the problems of these tiny island nations may remain in some alternate form of economic stimulation. However, until these nations can find their ultimate solution, the people of the Caribbean put on a fake smile while they try to wish away the distaste of the modern imperialism.
Pattullo, Polly. Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean. London: Cassell, 1996.
Gmelch, George. Behind the Smile: The Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2003.