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Impressions of the Caribbean


The history of the Caribbean region reads like that of an open field where outsiders came to play their little games. The Spanish discovered it in the 15th, they exterminated most of the original inhabitants and replaced them by slaves to grow sugar in the 16th. In the 17th, intrusion into what had become a Spanish sea by European pirates preying on galleons, was followed by British and French settlers avid for a piece of the sugar pie. The region could be likened to a checker board on which the various islands were only pawns and pieces in the game to control the sugar industry that was played between the Spanish, British and the French until the development of the sugar beet in Europe and the dispersion of cane fields in other parts of the world deprived the Caribbean of its strategic position at the end of the 19th century.

The white planters grew rich but they really had little to say about the destiny of the islands for the real decisions about trade were taken in Spain, England and France. When they were rich enough, white families returned to adopt gentile maners in Europe, far from their slave tainted past.

Then the United States started to develop an interest in their southern neighbours, discovering their "manifest destiny" to become an imperial power also, just like the old countries. The accidental explosion of the magazine of the American warship "Maine" in Havana harbour (see National Geographic Feb. 1998), provided a convenient justification for growing America to beat up on decadent Spain and reap its Carribbean colonies and the Philippines in the process. Cuba was let go on a short leash (the Platt amendment) and eventually entrusted to the care of a puppet dictators, first Machado, then Batista, following a favorite US strategy expertly applied in the Dominican Republic with Trujillo, in Nicaragua with Somosa, in Chile with Pinochet), in the Philippines with Marcos and elsewhere.

In the sixties, many islands became formally independent democratic countries as it was the fashion at that time. In fact, as the new governments were soon to realise, it was only illusion for the real decision about the future of the islands were still being taken elsewhere, by the trans-national companies that controlled their economy, now mainly in the US. Independent thinking and behaviour that Cuba had managed to get away with, was not to be tolerated hence the numerous US interventions (covert by CIA agents, economic like the Cuban embargo, or military like the latest in Grenada and Panama).

Beyond this common destiny of remainig subservient to outside forces, what struck me the most about the Caribbean islands is how similar they are beneath the superficial differences due to the predominance of English, French or Dutch influences.

Tourism corrupts

King sugar has now been replaced by king tourist. The Caribbean islands are amongst the most intensely touristed places in the world. In my opinion, too much so. There is no doubt that a moderate development of tourism is beneficial. It creates jobs, it injects hard currency into the economy and it exposes the local population to new ideas. I am very much of a tourist myself but I think that there is a threshold above which further development of the tourist industry causes long term damage.

I recognise my personal bias against heavily touristed resort cities like Cairns, Cancun, Durban, Kuta, Mar de Plata, Punta del Este, Surfer's Paradise, Torremolinos and Viña del Mar to name only those I have written about on this website. I don't like these places because I learn nothing from them and because the local people who smile at me there are only interested in my money and not in who I am. Some people don't care as long as they get a smile and the appearance of respect but I travel to meet people and to try to understand them and have found there is little real contact to be had with tourist handlers. They have seen so many like me that one more tourist is only a number, to be processed to make a living like fish on the cleaning line of a packing plant.

The long term damage I have mentioned affects not only to the attractiveness of such places for travellers like me, but also their social and economic structure. I have observed that the short term economic benefits derived from attracting the maximum number of visitors to a well serviced site are often paid for by an increase in delinquency, prostitution and corruption when tourism becomes the principal economic activity of the region.

I was particularly impressed by the situation in some islands where the annual number of visitors is more than ten times the number of permanent residents and where there is practically no other economic activity. This led me to imagine an Index of Tourist Saturation that takes into into account the ratio of tourists to residents and that of tourist revenues to the gross domestic product. Fortunately, a search on the Internet yielded statistics on tourist arrivals and tourism receipts published by the World Tourism Organisation for more than 200 countries. Matching these with United Nations' population and GDP statistics allowed me to sort them by decreasing order of my "Index of Tourist Saturation" (ITS).

The top place on the podium went to the British Virgin Islands. They were visited by fourteen tourists for every resident and tourism receipts represented 80% of their GDP in 1998! The second place went to the Turks and Caicos Islands and the third to the Caiman Islands. The Caribbean region got not only the three top spots but also 13 out of the first 20 places as you can see on this table where 200 countries are sorted by order of descending ITS. The Caribbean islands and neighbouring countries are marked by a dot for easy recognition.



My overall impression is that of a playground for hard working North Americans and Europeans who need a break from their normal routine without being deprived of the comforts of home and, more importantly, without being exposed to anything that might make them question the values they hold dear but never think about. Beautiful islands, fine beaches, hot sun throughout the winter and decent accomodations but little else.



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