Saint Lucians appear to have a real love-hate relationship with our tourism Industry. No matter how good their reports, something about it just ruffles our feathers. Even I have tried to put my finger on it, wondering whether it is those annoying experiences at Reduit Beach where I struggle to find space among, or far enough away from, wooden cabanas and beach chairs designated to only hotel guests, dotting the best spots on the beach. Or perhaps it is just that every pretty coast in Saint Lucia seems to share the fate of having a resort built on its shores. Either way, the fact that the best parts of our island get embellished for foreigners’ enjoyment, while locals meander through dilapidated roads and make do with resources all too meagre, is disheartening, to say the least. The reality is, however, that reports of a thriving tourism industry are among the few instances of ‘good news’ we receive regularly.
Take, for instance, three weeks ago when the Saint Lucia Tourism Authority reported the following statistic: Saint Lucia is now the second fastest growing tourism destination in the Caribbean and has seen 9.2% growth in arrivals – courtesy of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. We should be proud, I guess. But as the information reached the public, many seemed more sceptical than accepting. “Great self-serving numbers for the owners in the hospitality sector. That is all there is to all these numbers,” one anonymous commenter online said. There are more than fifty resorts on-island, thus the hotel sector alone allows for thousands of Saint Lucians to earn a living. Yet, so many of us grapple with the idea that we may still be getting the smallest piece of the pie. The question is, are we?
I spoke with a former employee of one of the most notable hotels on island. Her time with the company, where she began as a waitress and worked her way up to becoming a bar manager, spanned twenty-three years. On the question of whether during her time as a waitress and as a manager she personally benefitted during times of increased tourist arrivals, she responded, “Yes, we had a basic salary and we had a service charge. The service charge is the one that changes based on occupancy. It fluctuates: if we don’t have guests, it goes down; if we have guests, it stays up,” – her response shedding light on ordinary staffs’ relationship with rising and falling arrival numbers.
Interestingly, on account of whether she enjoyed the livelihood her success in the industry allowed, she said,“Yes, because they don’t just employ you, they also give you training and educate you. There was a training manager who gave different courses; at the end of the courses you also got certificates so, even if you left there, you can still show the certificates somewhere else.”
The downside, in her opinion, was that she spent a lot of time away from her family as she worked late hours, holidays and on Sundays.
For some insight into the lives of locals who operate outside the hotel industry but still within the tourism sector, I spoke to a boat captain who has conducted excursions for “around 30 years”. He informed me that most of his customers are, in fact, tourists. However, when asked whether during peak seasons he witnesses a surge in customers, the answer was “No”, and that he is “not sure where they get that information”. I also asked whether he is satisfied with the livelihood his job has earned him, to which he answered,
“No, I can’t wait to leave that job.” Perhaps this is an indication of the limited reach of the tourist dollar outside the hotel sector?
While the majority of our excursions and best national sites are owned and operated by locals, many depend on links with hotels and villas to reach guests. Prominent resorts like Sandals, for instance, have tour desks through which guests book tours. However, not every hotel guest will be interested in excursions. Most hotels also have in-house restaurants, spas, water sports and entertainment – even less reason to leave a resort.
Can we imagine a tourism industry where the tourist dollar reaches far beyond luxury hotels? Tourism Minister, Hon. Dominic Fedee has re-introduced the “Village Tourism” initiative. With plans of providing marketing guidance and training to local Bed & Breakfast Inns and small site attractions owners, the claimed aim is to have more locals benefit from tourism.
Would it not be great to see an evenly divided tourism market where locally owned businesses thrive? Sadly, it is hard to imagine, simply because of the scope and resources already acquired by regional powerhouses like Sandals and internationally famed Jade Mountain. Until it actually happens though, many will likely continue spewing the narrative that Saint Lucians are receiving the shorter end of the stick.