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Letter: The dark side of tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
Published on March 3, 2015 Email To Friend    Print Version

The picturesque Carenage, St George's, Grenada

Dear Sir:

The World Bank lists St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) as one of the least popular holiday destinations in the world with only 74,000 overnight tourist visitors in 2012. We are also at the bottom of barrel when Caribbean cruise ship arrivals are also counted.

Our nearby tourist competitors had the following number of overnight, non-resident visitors in 2012: Grenada -- 116,000; St Lucia -- 307,000; and Barbados -- 536,000. Before anyone retorts that this is because all three have international airports, they should note that Dominica had 79,000 airline tourists in 2012 -- 5,000 more than SVG -- but no real international airport, a population 40 percent smaller than SVG's, and lots more cruise ship passengers.

According to a recent report, "The Caribbean welcomed a record 26.3 million tourists in 2014, a 5.3 percent rise over the previous year". Meanwhile, our own tourist numbers have been stagnant or in decline for several years.

But is that really such a bad thing?

Any discussion of the number of tourists coming to the Caribbean by air or sea contains a suspect economic assumption: plenty of overseas holiday guests are necessary, maybe even sufficient, to promote wealth creation and poverty eradication in developing countries like ours that lack other obvious money-making alternatives. The sheer cost and enormity of the Argyle airport project requires that this assumption be tested against existing empirical evidence.

Our financially-troubled neighbour Grenada, a well-established and attractive Caribbean tourist destination with a population almost the same size as ours and a land mass only slightly smaller, has about 200,000 annual cruise ship visitors and a little more than half as many (116,000) overnight, non-resident visitors (nearly all arriving by plane); the comparable figures for SVG are 83,000 and 74,000. Taken together, Grenada annually receives twice as many tourist visitors as we do, with much of the difference based on cruise ship arrivals. Nevertheless, the contribution of Grenada's tourism industry to its overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is 6.4 percent, not much higher than SVG's 5.9 percent, mostly earned from the Grenadines.

Similarly, St Lucia, a country where tourism makes up a whopping 40 percent of the GNP, experienced negative economic growth in 2013 and 2014, and is expecting a very modest increase of 1.1 percent in 2015.

Another example is Jamaica which received a record-breaking 2.1 million stopover visitors and 1.4 million cruise ship visitors in 2014. These 3.5 million visitors contributed about US$2.2 billion to a tourism sector that makes up some 15 percent of the country's GDP. These seem like impressive figures until the following numbers are considered. Jamaica's per person GDP, the most commonly employed measure of a nation's wealth and poverty, in 2014 is estimated as US$9,256, or 27 percent below SVG's US$12,672 estimated GDP. Overall, SVG, with a much smaller 5.9 percent tourism GDP contribution, is a richer country with less poverty than Jamaica.

I am not arguing that a lot of tourism makes a country poorer: some of the richest places on earth are heavily tourism dependent and vice versa. What I am claiming is that the figures for Grenada, Jamaica, St Lucia, and many other examples I could have chosen from the Caribbean and elsewhere show that tourism is no economic panacea, not the least because most jobs in the hospitality sector are at the low end of the wage, education, social class, and skill continuum. Hundreds of Vincentians have been working on cruise ships for years now, mostly in insecure, low-paid, servile positions that First World Caucasians abandoned long ago.

Now our white overseer -- who demeaned all people of colour when he called himself the "Blackest Prime Minister in the history of SVG," slandering his predecessors in the process by implying they were Uncle Toms -- wants to bring thousands more of these unremunerative, subservient, unstable, and mainly seasonal jobs to our homeland via his adventure at Argyle. Being "black" is not a metaphor; it is an immutable birth status in the global system of capital accumulation and racial oppression. Are black Vincentians only good for cleaning toilets, making beds, scrubbing floors, and fetching drinks for white people?

If you have a government that actually boasts about creating what Marx and Engels called a "reserve army of labour" to be exploited by global capitalism and which sees our best and brightest nursing school graduates virtually compelled to migrate to other lands to earn their bread, hoping that they will send a few crumbs back home to their families, this is how you end up.

You also end up with lots of sex tourism. All over the Third World, where tourism has become the mainstay of the economy, millions of people of colour, including pre-pubescent boys and girls, have been ruthlessly exploited by debauched white men looking for low-budget sex away from the prying eyes of their home country's law enforcement and legal systems.

With our weak and corruptible system of law and order, with such high rates of unemployment and underemployment, with our libertine attitude towards sexuality and a growing tolerance for homosexuality, with our high rates of physical and sexual abuse of women and children, with so many females reduced to "picking fares" to make a living, with the "poor parenting" and "dysfunctional homes" correctly referred to by the prime minister in his 2015 budget address, and with so little for tourists to do here except drink cheap rum and buy cheap sex, we are well primed to become just another regional bulling-and-brushing tourism destination like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Brazil.

All these and many other negative features of migration, remittances, and tourism are well understood by our prime minister and his leftist acolytes simply because they have been endlessly described and analysed for decades by the neo-Marxist critique of political economy Dr Gonsalves has such familiarity with as a student, lecturer, and scholar. Still, good economics often makes bad politics even when no economic school of thought would ever argue that it makes sound developmental sense to birth, rear, educate, and train females -- all at great expense to their working-class parents and their poor country -- in order to subsidize rich nations like Trinidad/Tobago and Barbados from the moment they graduate from nursing school.

But school days are long over and arcane theoretical disputation is of little moment in the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics in an anti-intellectual, semi-literate, Alice-in-Wonderland society like ours where "white" is "black" and "black" is "white." The masses have long wanted a new international airport, so a brand-new airport they will get regardless of whether it can be afforded, supported, or needed and regardless of the negative effects on our fragile way of life.

In Caribbean politics, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.



This is the sixth in a series of ten essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport. The others may be found at:

Get ready for a November election in St Vincent and the Grenadines! But which November?
Lessons for Argyle International Airport from Canada's Montreal-Mirabel International Airport
Lessons for Argyle International Airport from the cruise ship industry
Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle International Airport in St Vincent
Lessons from Trinidad and Tobago for Argyle International Airport

C. ben-David
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