Skip to main content

"Save Our Beach Dem and Our Land Too!" The Problems of Tourism in "America's Paradise"

Barbara R.

As you fly into St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, your attention is captured by the changing pattern of brilliant blues and bright greens, where islands interrupt the Caribbean seascape. Leaving the plane, your first impression is a blast of warm, slightly humid air. Ah, vacation has begun! Hey, did you notice the beach right next to the airport? Did you sip on the rum punch, offered to you by smiling hostesses in colorful "native garb" as you entered the airport terminal? Did your baggage arrive?

Struggling to understand the St. Thomian version of English, you allow yourself and fellow travelers to be packed into a taxi van. You breathe a collective sigh of relief as the taxi moves out of the airport. We are finally here - "America's Paradise." Looking out the window you see your thoughts printed across the license plates of every car, truck, and van on the road.

Leaving the airport, traveling at a snail's pace in bumper-to-bumper traffic, a colorful mural catches your eye. The peaceful scene of lush green forest carpeting a sparsely settled tropical island entitled "past" lulls you further into a blissful state of relaxation. (See figure 1, opposite.)

Abruptly, your vision of island past is replaced by island "future." What's this? A paved rock covered with high rises, a cruise ship in port bearing the name Coke Lines, Inc.? (See figure 2, opposite.)

Your final image is titled "present": a black man confined to the rocky shore bordering an empty white beach. The sign behind him reads: "Condos swimmers only." A white bulldozer operator crunching over wooden cottages with red tin roofs, unearthing the skeletons in the cemetery, and toppling over a tombstone engraved with "St. Thomian culture, R.I.P." (See cover photo.)

The artists' posse who created this mural paid for their paint with the donations from those passing by, many of whom added comment and suggestion to the growing statement. Their labor took several weeks and many, many hands. The mural is one of ten or so on the island; most were painted as a spontaneous statement of social reality, not as commissioned works of roadside art. Murals appear on public walls along the highways, near the hospital, in bus stop shelters, an at busy intersections. This particular mural was painted in 1987, photographed in 1989. Some murals have stood free of grafitti for more than five years, a notable achievement in the Virgin Islands and one that attests to the strong sense of community "ownership" and approval of the messages expressed. When the island sun took its toll on the vivid colors of the older murals, portions were touched up and some segments were changed to reflect current community concerns. Individually and collectively, this graphic interpretation of people and life in a tourist's paradise is strikingly different from the picture carefully constructed by Madison Avenue public relations films, paid for out of the territory's multimillion-dollar tourism advertising budget.

Tourist expectations of island living are strongly influenced by industry-produced images designed to sell a place and people to the travel consumer. In brochures, travel features, and advertisements, islanders are beautiful, sun-loving people, lunging on the warm, white sands of island beaches. Or they are colorful revelers dancing in the streets to a pulsing carnival beat. At first glance the murals add historical and cultural depth to the constructed image of a happy, peaceful people inviting you to share their paradise. But the passive scenes of pre-Columbian Carib Indian Living, of African village life, and of West Indian farmers and fishermen share wall space with more disturbing statements: "Chant Down Oppression!"; "Rise Race: Cry No More!"; "No Locals: Read and Run! Read and Run!"; "SAVE OUR BEACH DEM AND OUR LAND TOO!" Historical scenes are juxtaposed with present-day scenes: a man in dredlocks chained by "OPPRESSION"; skeletal images of children surrounded by drug opportunities.

These self-constructed images of St. Thomian society impart a taste of the contradictions, tensions, and problems of the year-round reality of life on a tourist resort island. They illustrate the efforts of an island people struggling to define and redefine their culture and society, efforts that are intimately linked to their involvement with tourism.

The Tourism Development Experience

St. Thomas is a multicultural society whose economy was rapidly transformed by tourism in the 1960s. This small (28 square miles) island is one of five primary destinations for all tourists visiting the Caribbean. It is second only to the Bahamas in total cruise ship passenger arrivals. The resident population is approximately 55,000, although at the height of the tourist season the actual number of people on the island each day can exceed 85,000. More than a million tourists visit the island each year. Today, despite the incredible devastation from Hurricane Hugo, tourism continues to be a booming industry; cruise ships returned to the island less than a week after the Hurricane. On one day in early January 1990, more than 12,000 tourists were discharged from cruise ships, adding to the many thousands of overnight and charter yacht visitors.

In the early 1960s the average annual income of the US Virgin Islands was at levels consistent with the rest of the Caribbean. Most people augmented their meager incomes by fishing, raising livestock, and growing vegetables and fruit in kitchen gardens. Within the span of a decade, the average annual income rose to its present status of highest per capita income in the Caribbean.

Whether this change has been for the good is a continually debated and never-settled topic. Today the majority of people obtain heir food at Pueblo and Grand Union supermarket, a full 25 percent of households buying their food with food stamps. Virtually all food is imported. The walls of the Fruit Bowl, a popular produce market on St. Thomas, are plastered with pictures of fresh produce which proudly proclaim their origins: mangoes from Mexico, carrots from Canada, avocados from California, eggs from Kentucky! The average price of an acre of rural land on St. Thomas in 1960 was roughly half the mean annual income for native Virgin Islanders. By 1990, the price of an undeveloped acre of rural land was roughly three times the mean annual income of residents (Johnston 1987: 124).

When the tourism industry began its rapid growth in the 1960s, laborers were brought in from "down island" (St. Kitts-Nevis, Anguilla, Barbuda, Antigua, and other Caribbean nations). As the tourists increased, so too, did the number f expatriates as statesiders seized the opportunity to give up the nine-to-five in the frigid north and live year round in "paradise." According to US census counts, the native-born population fell from 74 percent in 1950 to 43.4 percent in 1980. (The native-born figure is probably much lower, as the US census did not count illegal aliens or the sizable number of transients who live and work in the islands during the tourist season) (Johnston 1987: 46).

Accompanying this socioeconomic transformation I a distinct set of problems. As early as 1996, Orlins noted the increased dependency on imports for material goods; increased labor and land costs; overall increase in the cost of living; rising immigrant population to meet labor needs; and greatly increased insular government expenditures. Later analyses (cf. Boyer 1988; Johnston 1987; Olwig 1985; O'Neill 1972) demonstrated the loss of indigenous control over the access and use of critical resources, such as land, fisheries, and major sectors of the tourism economy. Virgin Islands economy and culture was transformed from a system designed to meet the needs of the family and the local society to the present pattern oriented toward accommodating the needs of a tourist industry and encouraging a continued pattern of growth. The emphasis on meeting the resource needs of a growing tourism industry has its tradeoffs, of which environmental quality is one. Public sector expenditures have grown far beyond the levels of government revenues, and the territory is plagued with a huge annual deficit. And, finally, the demographic changes have created a crisis in island identity. Minority native status is now complicated by the products of 1960s, and 1980s era tourism industry immigrants, many of whom are white residents native in name only, not in culture.

Social Perception of the Tourism Development Experience

Some of the social consequences of the problems outlined above are illustrated, and to some degree addressed in, St. Thomian roadside art. The notion of "Island Pride" is a theme common to many murals. Cultural roots in African civilization, the natural landscape, and traditional black West Indian lifestyles are emphasized in scene after scene. Islands are depicted as unblemished by roads or high rises; the seas are empty of cruise ships and charter yachts; beaches are pristine except for the image of a solitary black man. (See figures 3 and 4, opposite.)

This reassertion of the black West Indian "St. Thomian" voice can be seen as one strategy in the demographic war for control over island definition and destiny. Furthermore, in emphasizing natural landscapes and traditional lifestyles, the murals influence environmental values and foster the desire for greater levels of interaction with the "pristine" island. As such, these statements represent an attack on the status quo, where islanders have been alienated from their environment.

Most people's experience and appreciation of the natural environment is largely tied to recreational activities, and even these are terrestrially based. Many native St. Thomians do not swim and have never been on a sailboat. Beaches have been transformed from fishing boat landings and morning/evening bathing sites to exclusive retreats for condominium owners and hotel guests. (See Figure 5, p. 34.)

Alienation: the Legacy of Progress?

As observed elsewhere, "Being somebody else's playground has meant that the Caribbean's fishermen have become beach boys, its farmers have turned into waiters, and TNC [transnational corporation] hotels are defining the local culture" (Barry et al. 1984: 87). After two and three generations of waiting tables, working in government offices, driving taxis, filling in potholes, and building homes, hotels, and filling in potholes, and building homes, hotels, and airports, knowledge of agricultural and fishing techniques is far from common. Environmental alienation has affected cultural values of the ecosystem as well, with most St. Thomians equating the cultural landscape with economic security. In the past, that cultural landscape was one of cultivated fields - agriculturally productive land. Today, hotels, shopping centers, and housing developments represent economic productivity. Thus, for many people, the notion of valuing a natural landscape over a cultural one is a radical concept. It is a statement against progress.

Clearly St. Thomians question the meaning of "progress." Passive scenes that instill a sense of cultural pride or nostalgia for traditional values and lifestyles abut angry statements of oppression and inequality and strident demands for change. A Bob Marley-like image of oppression stands next to be phoenix rising out of an island of ash. "Rise Race: Cry No More" is followed by images of Wellington Mbuto, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X. Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, and other black activists. And clearly, they question the pattern of land use and resource control associated with tourism development.

Until recently, many St. Thomians were passive actors in the development game, earning an income while those who owned the land and controlled the political system built their exclusive subdivisions, created tourist enclaves, and paved their island. Once the construction dust settled, people found themselves with no beaches for bathing, socializing, working their seine, landing their fishing boats, or harvesting coconuts and other plants. By 1970, only two of the more than fifty beaches on the island of St. Thomas were open to the "public." Although the Open Shorelines Act of 1971 assured public use of the coastal zone 50 feet from the high-tide mark, access to that zone to this day is not legally mandated.

St. Thomians are no longer passive in the development decision-making process. The final straw broke their collective back in 1984, three decades into tourism, when the territorial government approved zoning changes that would allow construction of a major resort adjacent to Magens Bay, one of the two public beaches during the 1960s and the favored beach of island residents. The Senate rezoned the land without a formal application from the developer, without their own planning office input, without public hearings, and without comment or discussion on the Senate floor. Three weeks after the rezoning became public knowledge, voters braved Hurricane Klaus so that they could remove from their two-year terms all 10 senators who supported the rezoning. Over the next 17 months the rezoning was repealed, a formal application was filed by the developer, the development was approved by the planning commissioner (against the recommendations of his staff), and numerous protests and rallies were held. It was during this time that the Rhymer Highway mural was painted, with "Save Magens Bay" as its central message. Constituency pressure, especially given the previous election dynamics, finally ended the issue in 1986 when nine of the fifteen senators announced their lack of support for the resort development - the day before the scheduled Senate hearing on the proposal.

Life goes on, however, and the business of development has returned to its usual pace. Expensive subdivisions were constructed on the hills surrounding Magens Bay. More hotels and condo projects were approved, and more of the coastline was transformed. And more murals appeared. "Save Magens Bay" was painted over and replaced with "SAVE OUT BEACH DEM AND OUR LAND TOO." Connections between economic interests (legal and illegal) and the political system became more apparent, and mural statements more overt. Graffiti spelled out a protest of the apparent white economic control over the black political system, and questioned the ties between tourism and the underground economy. (See Figures 6 and 7, opposite.)

Tourism and the Underground Economy

In one mural scene, white hands are passing money from drug trafficking and covert land development schemes into the black hands of the "people in power." In another scene, global drug production and drug trafficking money begins a chain that leads to material wealth for individuals and for the territory, and ends in death. These mural statements clearly suggest that at all levels of the sociopolitical system, greed, rather than social need, is what structures the business of development.

Tourism development hinges on an infrastructure that markets the locale, moves people in and out, and supplies the material requirements of the vacationing elite - hence the difficulties in sustaining a tourist economy in isolated and marginal settings [cf. Chapin, CSQ 14(1): 42]. In the Virgin Islands, as in most coastal economies between Latin America and the United States, the establishment of transportation networks that move tourists and luxury goods in and out also allows the movement of underground commodities: prostitutes, illegal aliens, and, most recently, cocaine and marijuana.

As a US territory in the middle of the Caribbean, with more than a million tourists entering and leaving each year, the Virgin Islands is a tempting port for shipping and transferring control over illegal commodities. The reality of drug trafficking is easily documented, as reports in the Virgin Islands' Daily News illustrate. In February 1987, three visitors were arrested at the Frenchman's Reef Hotel on St. Thomas and 280 pounds of cocaine seized. In May 1987, a Colombian fishing vessel suffered engine problems off St. Croix; upon boarding, authorities found 2,800 pounds of cocaine. In May 1988, five passengers on the "Cunard Countess" cruise ship were arrested while in St. Thomas port and 165 pounds of cocaine were seized. In September 1988, a 90-foot freighter with 1,000 pounds of cocaine was intercepted by a Coast Guard vessel off the coast of St. John. In June 1989, 50 pounds of cocaine were found floating in the water off St. Croix. On 7 July 1989, 670 pounds of cocaine was found floating off the north side of St, Thomas. Between February 1987 and 19 July 1989, at least 5,300 pounds of pure cocaine were reportedly seized in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico - worth, according to some estimates, roughly $240 million on the street in the United States. Trafficking since that July has sharply increased, according to Daily News reports. This situation is due, in part, to increased political tensions in Panama and Colombia and to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Hugo; the resulting lack of communications and surveillance has created excellent smuggling conditions.

Drug trafficking is a reality in the Virgin Islands. Rumors of police and other government officials' involvements are discussed in the newspapers and on radio talk shows. Stories abound of drug traffickers working as baggage handlers, shipping cocaine and marijuana in the holds of stateside-bound, tourist-filled airplanes. Longliners, which drag 50 to 100 miles of line baited and hooked through the deep waters off the shelf, have been spotted "fishing" in shallow waters. One fisherman suggested to me last July that fishery resource management closures of certain territorial or British Virgin Island waters were perhaps motivated by the desire to protect trafficking lanes rather than spawning grounds. An editorial in the Daily News reported the widespread perception that confiscated drugs wind up back on the streets, with corrupt cops as the beneficiaries (19 July 1989: 11).

Right or wrong, perceptions of government involvement in drug trafficking exist. Evidence of a link between drug trafficking and the tourism infrastructure accumulates on an almost daily basis, as seen in news reports of missed drop offs or informant-initiated drug raids. Drug trafficking has joined the ranks of cultural identity crisis, environmental alienation, and development rape to represent the legacy of tourism development: social tension, conflict, and chaos in "America's Paradise."

Assessing the Tourism Development Experience: On Whose Terms?

In any interpretation of the impacts of tourism development, the issues emphasized are those chosen by the writer. Thus, we find radically different assessments of the tourism experience for the same place by researchers using the same available data. In the case of Bermuda, for example, Manning draws a picture of tourism as "an industry that will enhance the social character of the country, not destroy it" [CSQ 6(3): 14]. Manning describes ownership laws that ensure that all businesses, aside from a few hotels, are 60 percent owned by Bermudians. Building regulations have been strengthened to protect the environment. There are no casinos. Hustling is prohibited. And, he asserts, "there is an absence of open resentment that is so apparent in many Caribbean tourist resorts" (Manning 1982: 14).

In a discussion published two years later, Barry, Wood, and Preusch present another side of the Bermudian tourism experience. They describe how economic control and profit from the "sun lust" industry is channeled, for the most part, into the hands of transnational corporations. These corporations own the hotels (exempt from the 60 percent ownership law) and own and operate the wholesale vacation package industry and the cruise ship lines. The authors note that

although some call Bermuda "the little Switzerland of the Atlantic," the facade of peace hides deep racial resentment. Murders, assassinations with consequent execution, and riots marred the 1970's, culminating in the declaration of a state of emergency and the occupation of the island by British troops to restore order. Segregation of black lower-class Bermudians from the wealthy white minority was not officially abolished until the 1960's. (Barry et al. 1984: 217)

Which interpretation is "reality"? Clearly, these different descriptions represent facets of the same reality. The difference in their assessment of the tourism experience is tied to different conceptualizations of what issues are important. Both interpretations are filtered through the cultural lense of the researchers - a common bias in the impact analysis literature. For the most part, discussions of the problems and benefits of tourism and development are set in a framework constructed by a researcher whose values and vision are not necessarily consistent with indigenous values and concerns. Thus, much development literature relies upon quantifiable variables tied to a notion of the standard of living, rather than sociocultural variables indicative of the quality of life. Of course this argument can be taken further: there is no single set of "indigenous" values and concerns, and the interpretation of the tourism and development experience varies from individual to individual. Still, I argue that some generalizations can be made, that it is possible to recognize a common set of internally defined issues and concerns that offer insight into the indigenous experience with tourism development.

In St. Thomas, as in most tourism-dependent societies, the impacts of development are debated and discussed daily in numerous ways. People talk and argue about the definition of a "native Virgin Islander" on the street corners, on radio shows, in public hearings, and in numerous other social arenas. Social statement and political satire is contained in their music - with the popularity and success of calypsonian, reggae, rap, and soca songs based on the degree to which they reflect a facet of reality. People wear an ever-changing variety of t-shirts, with messages reflecting current issues, events, and attitudes. And, as illustrated in this article, social perceptions of the development experience are voiced along the roadsides in murals facing the main highways and intersections of the island. These images of roadside art are used to structure my discussion of Virgin Islands tourism for the simple reason that the problems and issue raised are those perceived to be important by St. Thomians. They reflect a St. Thomian interpretation of the development experience. They highlight some the central problems in that society, problems tied to a development process that transformed the St. Thomian landscape, environment, lifestyle, and culture to meet the needs of a tourism industry. In voicing the observations, concerns, and fears of the community, these murals represent an effort to revitalize, transform, and mold the present chaos of St. Thomian social life into a cohesive society.

Note: St. Thomian painter Austin Petersen designed the murals shown in this article. Photographs were taken in June and July 1989. Information contained in this article is based upon interviews, observations, and archival research made during the summer of 1989, and over the period between April 1980 and July 1987, when I lived, worked, and studied in the Virgin Islands. Post-Hurricane Hugo information is drawn from articles and letters printed in the Virgin Island Daily News.


Barry, T., B. Wood, and D. Preusch

,1984 the Other Side of Paradise: Foreign Control in the Caribbean. New York: Grove Press.

Boyer, W.A.

1983 America's Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Chapin, M.

1990 the silent Jungle: Ecotourism Among the Kuna Indians in panama. Cultural Survival Quarterly 14(1): 42-45.

Manning, F.

1982 Caribbean Experience. Cultural Survival Quarterly 6(3): 14-15.

Johnston, B.R.

1987 The Political Ecology of Development: Changing Resource Relations and the Impacts of Tourism in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Olwig, K.F.

1985 Cultural Adaptation and Resistance on St. John: Three Centuries of Afro-Caribbean Life. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

O'Neill, E.A.

1972 Rape of the American virgins. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Orlins, M.G.

1969 The Impact of Tourism on the Virgin islands of the United States. Ph. D, diss., Columbia University.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.