That Sad Tourism Smile (part 1)

Where has all the promise gone? These streets were supposed to be the mecca of a thriving tourism industry.

Where has all the promise gone? These streets were supposed to be the mecca of a thriving tourism industry.

Many of us work in the sector, or on the local fringe of it. We hear speeches about airlift,arrivals and expenditure. We try our damnedest to understand the fundamentals, waiting for the promised yield of UK pounds and US dollars.

For some employed directly in the sector, Tourism pays the bills. But for many others, the prospect of a meaningful career in the wider industry remains a postcard promise: something you read about without really being there. So, we ask ourselves, is that it… Should we be expecting more…?

For sure, it’s not all weddings and honeymoons. After three or four decades in the business, prosperity is still a distant thing for rank and file St. Lucians working the tourism treadmill. To many, the soul of the industry remains opaque, impenetrable, foreign, white.

Considering however, that Tourism is still touted as our prime engine of growth – and seeing how it was supposed to move our children up-ladder from hard but honest fieldwork to something more dignified – it seems we ought to worry just a little about what we are putting in and what we are getting out.

Scene 1: Main Street, Gros Islet, St. Lucia, broad daylight. What used to be a thriving fishing village is virtually comatose. Fowls, dogs and flies unite in search of shade. Gutters, clogged with beer cans and chicken bones, harbour the detritus of last Friday night. Rats, no longer meek, have inherited the earth. Obscene lyrics blare from a yard of dubious repute. Old family houses are crumbling slowly into sand.

On one particular corner, a girl of indeterminable age, black bra and flowered tights, proudly offers pleasure… Anytime. Anyplace. Anyone. Any price. With her open-market policy, she could well be the national poster girl. What’s worse, her candour is so commonplace, it hardly strikes us strange.

Amazingly, Gros Islet is virtually surrounded by hotels: about a thousand rooms, some which rack up rates of around a thousand bucks a night. North across the broken bridge, condos eye the beach. To the East, luxury villas litter the low hills. South at the marina, mega yachts seek anchorage in paradise.

This village posing as a town, is prime waterfront: flat, accessible, fully serviced. Once there were rumours of a plan to make it all high-end; but no one mentioned where the current occupants would be allowed to live. Perhaps not long from now – when these same properties are woefully devalued by crime, blight and neglect – illustrious investors will be ushered in to buy them for a song.

Till then, the people – salt of the earth – seem out of the loop. They may well own their properties outright, but the only way to realize liquidity would be to sell out to their betters. Wisely unwilling to do so, but lacking finance, advice and alternatives, they remain where they are: cash-poor and largely unemployed. For them, the promise of Tourism has been distorted, lost in translation. In the abundance of sand, sunshine and seawater, the poor are thirsty. Surely, someone, somewhere – even in our hollow halls of power – must find something wrong with this picture.

Split Screen: December 31, round the cusp of midnight. Within the dim-lit innards of a 5-star resort, just up the beach from our model village, a small cohort of women waits in the shadows. Mostly mid-aged mothers clad in greying t-shirts. Their technology consists of brooms, mops, dingy rags and spray bottles filled with a dubious cocktail of chemicals.

They wait for the glitzy poolside soiree to subside. Then they move in – like scarabs – to eliminate the scattered trash and discarded tinsel. They are tired and haggard before their time. But magically restoring Paradise is what they do. In the dark of night, they return tourism to its postcard pretence: the market image it has painted of itself.

If this were the first world, where red-eye crews must also toil till dawn, would it be much different? Well, they might be younger, possibly of mixed gender and mixed race. They might also be more literate, credit-worthy, looking forward to promotion, better pay, owning a home, earning a diploma or degree. There might be a destination beyond the dead-end drudgery. But here, they are all black and poor and destined by advancing age to stay that way.

True, not all of us can work up-front, on stage and in the limelight. Not all of us can be managers or swag office accountants. But it seems so many sacrifice their dignity to this superficial sector. Too many linger on the edge of poverty, revolving debt and perennial despair. So let’s be brave enough to ask whether this favoured industry can serve us better. The answer for the most part, lies with public policy, as exercised – or not – at the top and the bottom of the ladder.

Flashback: The Original Intent: Large hotel developers armed with their own capital were supposed to invest here. If their private objectives matched up to our developmental goals, they would be incentivized and collectively encouraged. Their strategic investment would catalyse local enterprises: boutiques, restaurants, travel agencies, tours, transport, landscaping, manufacturing, craft, and a host of other areas ostensibly reserved for nationals. Thus, foreign capital was supposed to catapult, not crowd out, domestic business. The result should have been a vibrant multifaceted sector, a partnership of foreign and domestic interests supported by the state with scarce but strategic tax dollars.

That strategy, along with higher education and critical infrastructure, was supposed to change our status from surplus scarab labour into something better. The effect is known as the “Lewisian Turning Point”. But Sir Arthur’s prize-winning model presumed enlightened government, not people in power who would sell out for a couple bucks and a few low-lying jobs.

The model worked well for a while back then and Caribbean economies actually saw record growth. But all that intelligence which once drew UWI, OECS, ECCB, CARICOM and CDB into one coherent developmental logic, has been abandoned in an orgy of unbridled market forces. Those forces work well for self-serving politicians, but not for the scarabs of this earth. Without a viable development model for the sector, tourism investment has become unprincipled, even contradictory. Hence, what could easily be an exemplary lead sector suffers the indignity of validating its existence with million dollar billboards, trying to justify frequent calls for special and exceptional tax treatment.

Moreover, the ideal of a non-exploitative partnership between investor and state has faded so far from government memory that leaders on both sides now feel little moral compunction to defend the poor and the dispossessed. We are so grateful for the few new jobs that we are willing to pay the price of zero growth which comes with all that greed and shallow sightedness. Meanwhile, our people sweep the factory floor, remain bearers of water, hewers of wood, and carriers of night soil.

 

Adrian Augier is a development economist and St. Lucia’s 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year. He is an award winning poet and producer and the ANSA McAL Foundation’s Caribbean Laureate of Arts and Letters, 2010. In October 2012, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies for his contribution to regional development and culture. For more information on this writer and his work visit adrianaugier.blogspot.com.

 
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