Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Full Ration of Rum, Sun, Sand - or Coke (no cola)

Full text of the Comment is Free
Tourism or cocaine?
Caribbean economies depend on tourism. So why aren't the nations to the north encouraging an honest way to make a buck?

Ian Williams

May 19, 2007 9:00 AM
Lots of people think that it is humiliating for a country to be dependent on tourism. Things could be worse: about the only country in the Caribbean that doesn't rely on visitors dropping in is Haiti, which is hardly a model of sturdy self-reliance to emulate. Even Cuba has escaped from Marxist orthodoxy enough to accept that its economy depends on planeloads of palefaces landing to be become lobster-red before their return.

Some of the Caribbean islands are dependent on tourism for 80% of their GDP and, if anything, the trend is upwards as World Trade Organisation decisions force them out of sugar and bananas and leave them with a choice between building a tourist industry or being relay stations for cocaine shipments between Columbia, the US and Europe.

Indeed in 1999, after Bill Clinton requited a $500,000 donation from Chiquita with a WTO case that ended preferential access to Europe for Caribbean bananas, some local leaders were overheard questioning whether they could afford to continue cooperating with the US in the "War on Drugs". Perhaps wisely, most of them opted for big planes full of tourists rather than small planes full of coke.

Even now, however, Washington is not helping. Until last year, most US visitors to the islands, like most Americans, did not have passports. They were allowed to visit the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico and return with a driver's license or a birth certificate. As part of the paranoia of the "war on terror", they now need to have a valid passport.

But there is money in the islands. I've just been to the Caribbean Hotels Association Tourism Investment Conference in Curacao, where there were record numbers of financiers with chequebooks loaded looking for viable projects - hotels, villas and condominiums - to cater to the baby-boomer demand for what Captain Jack Sparrow celebrated on his desert island as "Sun, Sand, Rum! It's the Caribbean!"

Local opponents of tourism see it as demeaning: reducing locals to servings meals and cleaning rooms. It is an understandable prejudice in island societies that were built on slavery, but it is not borne out by the facts. In fact, the industry generates investment and skills in IT, telecommunications, finance, construction and can even put life into local industries like furniture making. And tourists may be obnoxious - but less so than grinding poverty, or proximity to a bauxite mine.

Not only do tourists take far more cash to developing countries than official overseas aid they do it in a much more "virtuous" way. Instead of recycling the cash back through experts and tied purchases, or at best handing it over to governments of occasionally dubious probity for prestige projects, they put the cash directly into the hands of locals where it immediately goes to work in the local economy.

This is not always true. I remember the sense of shock in Cuba when I saw sachets of sugar marked "Made In Canada" in an island that had massive and un-sellable stocks of the stuff. However, the best resort and hotel owners have been working to develop local suppliers and to develop local skills.

There is another dilemma. Small islands smack in the middle of the hurricane belt are the most vulnerable to global warming and sea level rise. Those beaches are not for sunning when the winds blow and the waves crash. But the only effective way to get their hands on all those tourists' euros and dollars is to fly them in, so local officials are peeved at current European calls to tax and curtail air traffic.

From a Caribbean point of view, it looks triply, indeed quadruply, ungrateful. First Americans and Europeans kidnapped their ancestors and brought them to grow sugar, then we lost interest in them, and then put up huge barriers against the very products that they were enslaved to grow. Now we try to curtail air links to make up for all greenhouse gas damage caused by our historical industrialisation process that was largely capitalised by the fruits of their servitude.

I once did a rough calculation - the modern economy jumbo passenger probably does have less space than a slave on a slave ship - but it really isn't the same, and few tourists would care to make the Middle Passage for their dream holiday in the sun.

All those environmentalists who want to cut back air traffic to the Caribbean are compounding historical injustice to the locals with meanness to their own compatriots. There is a very good reason why people don't go for weeks in British seaside resorts anymore. It will take a hell of a lot of global warming before they can compete with the beaches, the warm blue waters, the music, the rum and the sun of the Caribbean.


Tracy Q said...

I have not heard much about Trinidad having a tourist economy. Can you clarify this for me, if this has changed? I understand that people do visit Trinidad - but I have trouble imagining that the numbers are enough to enhance the economy.

Tobago, I guess, is a source of income for T&T... Does the economy really depend upon this, though?

Sorry to sound a bit hung up, but I was brought up to think that a tourism-based economy IS a bit questionable. At least, where the Caribbean is concerned. This, as you point out, is a deeply ingrained feeling.

Your Trin-hattan friend, TQ

Deadline Pundit said...

Trinidad is trying hard to boost its tourism, but numbers were down for the Carnival, and local officials ascribe this to poor policing and high crime rates...even in Tobago.

Persistent complaint is that when tourists do go to complain about being robbed, the police seem to think that this is a legitimate way of inputting tourist dollars into the local economy and do little about it.

Tobago has several resorts under development despite this quaint redistributive attitude!