COMMENTARY: That sad tourism smile!

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COMMENTARY: That sad tourism smile!
Adrian Augier
Adrian Augier

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…

Any time. Any place. 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 as strange.

Amazingly, Gros Islet is virtually surrounded by hotels: about a thousand rooms, some with rack rates 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 realise 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 five-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 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.

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.

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 eye 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 laisser-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 St. 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 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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5 COMMENTS

  1. Its certain that not everyday we stumble on a quality writing piece that captures a real commmentary on dark side of Tourism in this country. Through intent or instinct the writer has executed his duty beautifully while the camera gears into sharper focus on the path of an unforgiving industry that has raped and abise our people for many years.

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  2. Hi Hurricane,
    I find the the article very specific on what needs to be done. It paints a whole picture for you on what is possible with a few changes to the way we do things. Perhaps you should read it again. Don't fault the messenger. Perhaps we should ask our policy makers to present us with the details of a development plan for the sector. After all that's what we pay them for... Remember?

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  3. Beautiful piece... a sham more persons avoid politics for what it stands for in our society. His points are true though like many economists the fine details of how utopia is achievable is invisible.

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  4. too many issues to address in this article.. briefly - tourism is the biggest bringer of foreign exchange reserves. You're using tourism dollars to pay for importing gas and food. What's the point in that? Grow more of your own food and use less gas. If you don't make it yourselves, then expect to pay what everyone else does. Quit whining.

    Tourists only want to come if the place is looking nice. St Lucia isn't the ONLY place to go on holiday. Why don't you clean up the streets and move the riff-raff elsewhere. Also a tourist arrives, there is only such much that can be extracted - they either stay in a hotel or guesthouse. And they only eat /drink so much a day. If you want to get them out of the hotels you need to have local businesses/attractions doing something nice. They don't owe you anything.

    Everytime I come back I just see bars/restaurants that look unappealing (toilets blocked / no lights / poor menu)and a lot of hustlers (don't see them in Italy/Spain). Also a lot of looshans have some funny expectations about what they want from tourists, yet they're quite ignorant how to go about it; some of them end up in government making jackass decisions.

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  5. You must tell that to Emma and all those who have represented Gros Islet before. It shows how under represented this place have been.

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