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Sunday, December 12, 2010

'Tis the Season (for Tourism)

It’s Christmas time, but because I grew up in a temperate zone, I associate this holiday with things like the scratchiness of sweaters, the quiet of snow, the smell of far-away chimneys, and the heaviness of blankets. In the tropics, however, it’s still 80 degrees and sunny, so Christmas has very different characteristics. As Stephanie has already mentioned some of these (namely, Sorrel and Parang), and because it generally doesn’t feel like Christmas for me, I’m thinking about something else associated with this time of the year down here: tourists. Christmas season coincides with tourist season, and there’s no mistaking it.

Another volunteer recently took this photo (above) of four cruise ships in St. George’s harbor. That’s the maximum capacity for Grenada, and, as you may be able to tell, they are a lot to handle. In fact, they’re the tallest things around when they dock at an island like this. Each ship is a giant city on water, moving from port to port in the Caribbean, inundating the towns and cities with mostly funny-dressed white people for a few hours before cruising back out. Of course, I understand the lure of an all-inclusive cruise: a Titanic-inspired vacation of parties, adventure, and relaxation, with the ability to see a big region in a short span of time. Frankly, a cruise sounds lovely upon first inspection. But there are many problems with cruises (pollution, harbor dredging, victimization, disappearances), and now after seeing it from the perspective of the destination, I don’t think I would ever take one myself.

There’s a big misunderstanding between the locals and the tourists. The locals don’t understand that each person coming off the ship (of the thousands unloading) is an individual person with a different interest and situation. Some may have barely afforded the cost of the boat and have little money to buy spice necklaces or trinkets. Others have a little money, but are annoyed at the feverish selling techniques of the local peddlers. The tourist may come off brusque and negative because they are so fed up and overwhelmed by the attention. Only a few of them (those more culturally conscious) may understand the unique phenomenon their floating city poses to a poor island nation- or at least that the locals aren’t wearing any shorts or sun hats. “Was that woman wearing jeans!?” I recently overheard a sweaty tourist (actually wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt) ask his friend.

The average tourist, one might presume, isn’t interested in learning much about the destination or its culture. This bemusement at the local wearing jeans in sweltering heat seems to be the extent of their inquiry. Tourists want to see a few trademark sites before re-embarking: waterfalls, forts, beaches. For lack of time, they probably won’t notice the huge disruption they cause. St. George’s population almost certainly doubles during the few hours each ship is docked. A country whose demographic is 99% black is flooded with (predominantly) white gawkers with funny accents, taking pictures, dressing inappropriately, and generally not interested in conversation; let alone buying anything. The circumstances are stark for misunderstanding.

Yet something like 90% of Grenada’s income is based on tourism. One need only look at the case of Natalee Halloway in Aruba to see how fragile such investments are. All it takes is one drunk tourist to wander off with some predatory locals for the whole economy to take a monstrous hit. If the Halloway incident had happened in Grenada, where its former colonial metropole no longer provides huge subsidies (c.f. the Dutch), people would starve in the wake. And then there’s the paradox that the more “touristy” a place gets, the less attractive it is for tourists. Cancun comes to mind.

For its part, Grenada is undergoing a resurgence of investment in agriculture. After Hurricane Ivan, the country’s nutmeg industry- once 2nd in the world- was decimated. Only recently has the government stepped up incentives for replanting (nutmeg takes about 15 years to reach full production). They’re also investing in increased cocoa production, a crop that grows all over the island due to its colonial predominance but for which low market prices, driven by child labor in West Africa, have inhibited harvesting. The government, of course, benefits the most from tourism due to the docking fees it collects from each ship- two a day during peak season. And recently, the government has negotiated a shocking duty-free zone, complete with massive harbor dredging, on perhaps the most culturally-preserved island in the Caribbean: Carriacou. I hope Grenada moves toward more domestic and subsistence-oriented investments like agriculture and small-business development. Tourism income is really what the cruise ships make, not the island destinations. Revenue trickling down to local economies just doesn't reach enough people. Thus, tourism can only be a small part of the answer.