Last week the STAR presented Part One of a most compelling article on tourism, “That Sad Tourism Smile” by Adrian Augier. In his opening notes he points out; “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.” He goes on: “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…?”
Augier then captured the essence of the reality of tourism, seemingly far removed from that of the politicians, in brilliant imagery, without glossing over what goes on at the Gros Islet street party in the name of a dollar for vendors. The intent of tourism, according to Augier, was for foreign capital 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,” he states. 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.”
The harsh conclusion of Part One: “Meanwhile, our people sweep the factory floor, remain bearers of water, hewers of wood, and carriers of night soil.” – STAR Editor.
As for the orgy of market forces, whole chunks of our virgin landscape have passed irrevocably from local hands. We have sold off so much of our asset base that the larger benefits of the industry do not accrue within the local economy. Transactions affecting thousands of lives take place beyond our sphere of influence, comment or control. Even transfer taxes can be avoided via cleverly crafted deals. Between the lawyers and the politicians – easily interchangeable – we are left with little say.
Economic Power Comes with Ownership.
While on the local fringe there is the semblance of an industry, in reality this is just the factory floor where bed-nights are made and laundered; not necessarily where they are designed, marketed or sold. We need to understand this dichotomy and its racial ramifications if we intend to change the profile of the industry and its image in the eyes of average citizens.
At the top of the agenda, public policy must do an about-face: from facilitating exploitation to leveraging local ownership. The prime objective must be mobility, specifically upward mobility over the life-curve of the average worker and across the spectrum of the industry. It is not enough to create static jobs in a static industry. People must enter, learn, grow and graduate to higher levels of employment and market-driven earnings. We must see local market-share expanding yearly. Otherwise we could all be cuddling a powder keg.
Five years from now, will the red-eyed, grey-clad, mid-aged women in the midnight basement be any better off? Not bloody likely – unless we change the culture. If tourism is to mean anything to those who support and subsidize it, we the people must start work each day knowing that the endgame includes personal prosperity and the right of ownership.
If workers remain barely literate yet unlimited in supply, wages will lag eternally behind the rising cost of living. Upward mobility will remain the exception. The laws of supply and demand will continue to price us down and out. An unregulated labour market will play us one against the other with higher paying jobs and functions outsourced to overseas.
The laissez-faire, take-what-you-get approach clearly needs recalibration. Given the plethora of direct support the sector requires, we need to be much more definitive about the benefits derived from this costly, coddled industry. As long as the sector receives subsidies and incentives financed by taxpayers, governments have an unmitigated right and responsibility to safeguard the public interest, protect workers from exploitation, ensure economic space for local enterprise, and demand strategic returns.
Just a tad outside the box, consider Le Paradis, sitting cold on St. Lucian soil. Could we not bring that carcass back to life, creating employment up and down our Atlantic coast? We could acquire it for cents on the dollar and give the damn thing away to MIT or Harvard for an off-shore campus; to Apple for a green-tech mecca; to UWI as a cancer research centre. If it is indeed a buyer’s market out there, there must be some alternative to the environmental carnage we now drive by and ignore.
Flash Forward: Gros-Islet, circa 2020.
A Village Restored to Sanity. The rats are gone. Crime rates are down. Prostitutes and drug dealers are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they are otherwise engaged, mutually servicing each other. A shady green space fronts the Catholic church, gathering young and old parishioners. Rustic benches line the beachfront where buildings are set back from a boardwalk decked with bright umbrellas. People of all ages gather to admire sunsets, play checkers, share drinks over dominoes, debate the merits of tourism across a unified OECS state.
Businesses are thriving on a mix of visitor and local patronage. Restaurants, boutiques, book stores, bars, galleries and craft shops offer a range of top-grade designer products, not imported from Taiwan. Around the corner, live entertainment: music, performance poetry, a roaring comedy club. Our best artists, emancipated from the cut-throat hotel circuit, are getting paid directly. Others are subsidized by the town’s business association.
To fund all this, the village council collects its own property taxes, fairly levied on the many million-dollar homes within the district. A 2% municipal room tax sustains the pristine environment. Streets are swept. Hedges trimmed. Drains cleaned every night. The mothers’ midnight crew has turned co-operative and secured the sanitation contract for their own village and several surrounding properties.
A live jazz club provides a preview of Saint Lucia Jazz & Arts, showcasing the very best of Saint Lucian talent. At the town’s new auditorium, a musical has been running nightly for the last six months. Patrons of mixed complexion queue around the block. The hit play has been reviewed in New Yorker Magazine, featured on the BBC. It’s a Walcott piece, with a trans-Caribbean cast and global market reach: at last, the true dawn of creative industry.
In this future day, our governments, banks, colleges and private sector agencies all understand the nexus of key issues: education, empowerment, access, ownership. They realise finally that real growth only occurs when these imperatives are synchronized into one cohesive formula. That way, growth is rooted in the people. It becomes a way of life. Wealth and wisdom replace ignorance, anarchy and resentment.
The Sequel Starts Now
The smartest and most urgent move would be to change fundamental attitudes and perceptions. The best way to do this is to focus on improving equity. Working together, local and inbound investors, regulated intelligently by the state, can enhance tangible returns both to themselves and to community. But foremost, we need policies that end the scarab syndrome, making it more plausible for nationals – largely through improved access, world-class education and equal opportunity – to have a real shot at actually tasting more of the tourism pie, including that estimated two-thirds of our industry bustling beyond our shores.
The tourism incentive regime should be redesigned to read more like a mutually binding contract that contemplates not just tax breaks, but meaningful societal advancement.
Measurable performance criteria must include: job creation, foreign exchange retention, support of local businesses, human resource development, product innovation, market development, social and environmental responsibility, profit sharing and reinvestment. Score high and incentives are renewed. There’s no incentive to score low.
Ultimately, we need a mind-set that makes us see ourselves and our foreign friends as joint shareholders in this bright blue and golden yellow future: a vision that drives the right blend of global opportunity to our shores. And when it arrives here, we must have something worth investing in: something to sell other than our sad but smiling selves.
Adrian Augier is a Development Economist and St. Lucia’s 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year. He is an award-winning poet, producer and ANSA McAL Foundation’s Caribbean Laureate of Arts and Letters, 2010. In October 2012, he received an honorary doctorate from University of the West Indies for his contribution to regional development and culture. For more about his work visit adrianaugier.blogspot.com. Read the complete article on