OPINION: Time to rethink Caribbean tourism

Posted: 8 February 2007

Who should benefit from Caribbean tourism? Overseas hotel owners and cruise firms, or the people and environment of the islands? It is a touchy issue, addressed in a recent article by Ronald Sanders in The Island Sun. This adapted version comes from the Small Islands Voice, a website for the exchange of small island news.

The notion of a racial divide in the Caribbean tourism industry is a problem that dare not speak its name. It creates discomfort among many of the expatriate hotel owners and managers, and governments are fearful of dealing with it.

Tourism is now a huge contributor to the economies of all Caribbean countries and the biggest contributor to many of them such as Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands. In 2004, travel and tourism contributed 14.8 per cent of the Caribbean's Gross Domestic Product and 2.4 million jobs, representing 15.5 per cent of total employment. Over the next ten years, these figures are expected to rise.

Rainforest canopy, St Kitts & Nevis
Rainforest canopy, St Kitts & Nevis
Looking up through the forest canopy, St Kitts & Nevis. Photo credit: © UNESCO/Small Islands Voice
There are several pressing problems associated with Caribbean tourism. One of the most important is the racial divide between its ownership and management on the one hand, and its workers on the other. And, this problem is likely to worsen in the future unless it is tackled now.

Given the size of financial investments that will be required for resorts in the Caribbean, it will be principally white expatriate companies with access to capital that will build and own the resorts and other aspects of the tourism business. Tourism may in fact become a plantation industry not dissimilar to the old sugar plantations, with absentee owners, expatriate managers, profits sent abroad and locals relegated to wage earners only. And not unlike the plantation system, if the disparity of benefits grows between foreign owners and local workers, revolts may occur starting with industrial unrest but expanding to other forms of social instability.

Racial divide

Furthermore, if World Trade Organization rules continue to develop in the way that they are, companies from developed countries will have the right of establishment in the service industries of developing countries, including the Caribbean, almost on demand. Thus, the obvious racial divide between the owners and the workers in the tourist industry - and the unevenness of the benefits - will intensify. To pretend that the problem does not exist would be as unwise for hoteliers as it would be imprudent for governments.

The balance between cruise ship tourism and land-based tourism is another issue that needs addressing. Increasingly governments are being encouraged to spend tax dollars on nfrastructure for cruise ships. Hoteliers argue that governments should improve and expand airports, modernise utilities, and create new tourist attractions. In the absence of studies that scientifically analyse the different positions, government allocation of scarce resources has been based on hunches and political pressure.

The same observation holds for all-inclusive holidays in which hotels trap visitors within their compounds. Should governments continue to use taxpayers' money to build airports - and in some cases to subsidise flights by foreign airlines - simply to supply a few hotels with captive guests, while restaurants, shops, arts and craft centres, and street vendors outside the hotels see no benefit at all?

Despite much talk, the Caribbean has failed to act in a serious way to integrate Caribbean agricultural production, manufacturing and services with the tourism industry. Much of the food consumed by the tourism industry is still imported from outside the region as are manufactured products and services.

Policies should be put in place to ensure that benefits from tourism are spread widely throughout Caribbean communities, not only in providing jobs, but more importantly in facilitating ownership. Such policies should be guided by research conducted by a Tourism Research and Development Institute, housed in one of the region's universities. The institute should be funded by governments, the Caribbean Hotel Association and other private sector organisations in the region. It is in the interest of the wider private sector to support such an Institute, for if tourism is the engine of economic growth in the region, then almost every enterprise in the private sector is dependent upon it to some extent.

Such an Institute could provide the scientific studies and plans to turn two decades of talk into action. One thing is certain: if there is not serious research and development of the tourism industry, it may continue to contribute to Caribbean economic growth and development, but not for long.

Note: Small Islands Voice is an inter-regional initiative focusing on small islands - both small island developing states, and islands with other affiliations - in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific regions. Small Islands Voice hopes to make a significant contribution to the realization of sustainability and the achievement of sustainable development goals in small islands around the world. See more at www.smallislandsvoice.org