Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean

Polly Pattullo, Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005).

This book is a thorough study of the frontiers of Caribbean tourism. It provides a wealth of knowledge about the players and the industry, and advocates new models for sustainable tourism in the region.

The author presents tourism as an alternative to diminishing banana and sugar regimes. She outlines its potential for success but also profiles three external forces — airlines, sales agents, and hotels — as obstacles to domestic control. She identifies at least 13 airlines plying Caribbean routes, of which only 2 (Air Jamaica and BWIA) are of local origin. As a result of this imbalance, 85% of flight arrivals are on foreign carriers, which can cut back service without regard to local needs.

In similar fashion the book underlines the significance of tour operators who control the selection of flights, hotels, ground operation and day trips, and are thus in a position to influence travelers to Caribbean destinations. It also emphasizes the prominent role of foreign-owned hotels, which can expand or limit the success of the islands in attracting visitors.

Overall dependency relations impede cooperation between the tourism and agricultural sectors, limit upward mobility among workers, and favor large hotels over smaller ones. The author bemoans the agricultural sector’s limited involvement in supplying food to the tourist business, but applauds Grenada’s former prime minister Maurice Bishop for his vision and his short-lived attempt to overcome this situation through local linkages between agriculture and tourism.

Employment is also a topic of contention. Despite training, hiring regulations, and union protection, indigenous employees typically receive inadequate compensation. This condition, which stems from a heritage of slavery and colonialism, is reinforced by the dominance of large foreign-owned enterprises.

According to Pattullo the existence of “tourists only” beaches is cause for resentment by many local beach enthusiasts. In addition, the acceptance of Western culture, along with harassment, the drug trade, and the sex industry, dramatizes socioeconomic decline and enhances degradation and illegality. The Caribbean territories are havens for gambling and money laundering activities that are beyond the reach of local authorities.

Tourism is continuously adapting to a diverse clientele. An important aspect of relatively recent origin is ecotourism, with its emphasis on rain forests, national parks and marine reserves. Cuba has 50 areas amounting to 12,000 square kilometers designated for “nature tourism,” Belize attracts foreign investment in lodges and small hotels in areas of natural beauty like Ambergris Cave, and Dominica has its Morne Trois Pitons National Park. Nonetheless the promotion of such ventures is threatened by the destruction of coral reefs, erosion of beaches, pollution from waste material, and construction on wetlands.

Further problems arise as a result of cruise ships. With inexpensive fares and all-inclusive amenities against a backdrop of favorable overhead and port expenditures (and in some instances exclusive privileges through ownership of islands), these giants at sea sustain a skewed relationship at local ports of entry and surrounding outlets, limiting financial benefits to Caribbean retailers, vendors and taxi drivers among others.

After reviewing a number of failed ventures, the author proposes authentic festivals and rituals as themes for successful cultural events. She also favors grassroots tourism in which rural communities and families are integral participants. Examples of this include the Sustainable Communities Foundation in Jamaica, the St. Lucia Heritage Tourism Program, and the Toledo Ecotourism Association of Belize. The effect of such measures would be to increase the tourist sector’s contribution to local infrastructure.

Overall, the book draws on a variety of disciplines and on a rich supply of anecdotes to address usefully a wide range of issues.

Reviewed by Leroy A. Binns
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
The Union Institute

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