The Caribbean Experience


In the twentieth century there has been a decline of European jurisdiction in the Caribbean and a corresponding rise of American influence as the United States has come to see the region as vital to its military, geopolitical, and economic objectives. The tourist industry has also grown rapidly. There is a direct connection between American involvement and the rise of tourism. During World War II Britain leased land on several Caribbean islands to the United States for military airfields, which enabled the islands to gear up for mass tourism. Not surprisingly, the industry that developed was financed largely through North American investment capital, dominated by North American-based multinationals, and oriented toward a North American clientele.

Tourism in the Caribbean has various faces, many of which appear detrimental and degrading both to Caribbean peoples and, ultimately, to tourists. One of these faces is the tourist enclave, typically a self-contained hotel complex or larger resort area that is totally severed from native society. Tourists in such enclaves gain little sense of the host country, as their only relationships are with service personnel whose job is to pamper and amuse them. Enclave areas symbolize foreign wealth and privilege in the midst of native poverty. To many this is the most repugnant aspect of tourism. Resort enclaves are deliberately designed to be alien from their natural and social environment; they look very much like each other, and very little like their surroundings.

There is a story about an unscrupulous Haitian boat captain who took the life savings of several hundred would-be refugees as his price for transporting them to Florida. During the first night at sea, however, he turned the boat around and headed for a tourist resort on Haiti's north coast. There he offloaded his passengers, telling them it was Miami Beach. It was not until dawn, when they encountered a security guard at the gate of the resort, that they realized they had been duped.

The insulation of luxury tourism from the host country is an economic as well as a social problem. While tourism generates badly-needed foreign exchange, much of this quickly leaves the country to buy expensive imports deemed essential for tourists.


How, then, do the local people gain access to the material benefits of tourism? For many, the answer is hustling. Female prostitutes are familiar fixtures around resort areas. The more notorious figures, however, are their male counterparts, often called "beach boys" or "rent-a-gents." Offering escort and sexual services for a price, they cater to North American women who have been steeped in the myth of black virility and come to the Caribbean to experience it. In countries like Barbados which attract a high proportion of unattached female tourists, the beach boy spectacle is a subject of considerable local discussion, at times humorous but more often reflective of a deep moral concern over the social impact of tourism and the popular tourist view, fueled by suggestive advertising, that the Caribbean offers not only sun, sand, and sea, but sex as well.

In a sense, hustling is the revenge of the native. If the tourist industry is seen as exploitative, hustling represents an opportunity to counter-exploit, to make a fast, easy, and enjoyable buck by preying on the emotions and passions of gullible, free-spending vacationers. Hustling thus becomes a way of life, as indicated in the familiar Caribbean phrase, "tourism is whorism." Child beggars, rip-off taxi drivers, price-gouging merchants, smooth-talking flim flam men - these and others are part of a widespread hustling scene.


While it is easy to indict Caribbean tourism, it is more difficult to identify profitable alternatives. The islands in general, and the smaller ones in particular, are overpopulated, critically undeveloped, and lacking in natural resources. A return to plantation or subsistence agriculture is unacceptable, and probably unfeasible. Branch plant manufacturing is already uncompetitive, and certainly no less exploitative than tourism. For most Caribbean countries, then, the simple reality is that tourism is economically essential. The challenge is to learn better ways of planning and governing it.

One is impressed in this regard by Bermuda, a tiny country on the Caribbean's Atlantic perimeter where tourism has flourished for more than a century and been the major economic activity since the 1920s. Comparing Bermuda to the Caribbean, an informant observed: 'In the Caribbean, Departments of Tourism promote tourism; here, everyone promotes it.' In Bermuda there is a commitment to make tourism an industry that will enhance the social character of the country, not destroy it.

Ownership laws ensure that all businesses, aside from a few large hotels, are sixty per cent owned by Bermudians. Building construction and environmental preservation are stringently regulated, on the premise that tourists are enchanted by surroundings which are different from what they see at home or what they would experience in resorts which have imitated Miami Beach architecture. Casino gambling is prohibited, as are foreign industries linked with vice and corruption. Hustling, sexual or otherwise, is prohibited and socially stigmatized to the extent that it is virtually impossible to detect. Tourists are encouraged to leave their hotels and to travel on their own throughout the island; in fact, a major business is moped rental. Advertising is aimed primarily at married couples and families, and there has been a highly successful emphasis on attracting repeat vacationers. Bermudians have not only developed the tourist industry, but also guarded it and planned for the long term. Bermudians socialize amiably and comfortably with visitors; there is an absence of the open resentment that is so apparent in many Caribbean tourist resorts.

Various circumstances help to explain the distinctive attitudes of Bermudians toward tourism. Historically, Bermuda had a maritime rather than a plantation economy, making it open and responsive to the outside world. Bermuda has also had a well-established economic elite, which controls the local banking and merchant sectors and has therefore been able to deal with foreign investors on equal if not superior terms. Bermuda's general standard of living is equivalent to North America's, which precludes the sense of relative deprivation between native and tourist that is abrasive in much of the Caribbean. Also, Bermuda's geographical location, separate from the Caribbean and relatively nearer to the population centers of North America, isolates it from the intense competition for tourism that has gripped the Caribbean islands.

These and other circumstances notwithstanding, the point remains that Bermuda has dealt constructively with tourism. Other Caribbean countries can learn from that experience, by modifying it to their own situation and needs. With proper vision and management, tourism can be no worse, and perhaps a great deal better, than other means through which men and women earn their livelihoods.


Middle East % Oceania %

Egypt 28.5 Cook Islands 15.2

Iran(a) 20.7 Fiji Islands 27.7

Israel 15.7 New Caledonia 44.6

Jordan(a) 33.0 Tahiti (French Polynesia) 45.8

Lebanon(a) 30.7 ----

Syrian Arab Republic 7.4 28.7

Turkey(a) 9.2



Africa Latin America

Gabon(a) 53.8 Argentina 12.1

Ghana - Brazil 1.8

Ivory Coast(a) 41.7 Chile 4.5

Kenya 13.1 Colombia 16.1

Lesotho 28.0 Ecuador(a) 2.8

Madagascar 46.1 Guatemala 13.8

Mauritius 4.9 Mexico(a) 5.6

Morocco(a) 16.6 Panama(a) 25.5

Senegal 49.7 Peru(a) 2.8

Seychelles(a) 61.0 Venezuela 33.4

Tunisia 9.4 ----

United Republic of 4.6

Cameroon(a) 10.9

Zambia 39.2



Asia Caribbean etc.

Afghanistan(a) 11.1 Antigua 32.2

Bangladesh(a) 6.2 Bahamas(a) 35.6

Hong Kong 34.0 Barbados 14.9

India 10.2 Bermuda 46.7

Indonesia(a) 10.6 Cayman Islands

Malaysia 5.6 Dominican Republic(a) 30.5

Pakistan 10.0 Jamaica(a) 31.0

Philippines 43.9 Martinique(a) 67.2

Republic of Korea 27.5 Puerto Rico(a) 43.4

Singapore 32.6 Saint Lucia(a) 43.8

Sri Lanka 21.3 Trinidad and Tobago(a) 42.6

Thailand 10.4 ----

---- 35.6


All developing countries

and territories 11.1 All countries 3.3

Sources: Tourist offices and WTO. Regional Breakdown of World Tourism Statistics, 1973-1977 (1979 edition). Cited in UNCTC 1982:21.

(a) 1976 or 1977 data.

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