Friday, May 05, 2006

Tourism and Tots To Save the World

St Lucia changed hands no less than fourteen times in the wars between the British and the French when its lush tropical climate and its volcanic soil produced the sugar and rum that were the economic equivalent of modern day oil. For centuries, the Caribbean was the equivalent of the Persian Gulf - the source of most of the North's wealth and a magnet for armies and fleets.

And then it was forgotten. Economically, if St Lucia had ended up with the French, its inhabitants could have been enjoying EU benefits and subsidies, like Martinique, visible across the Caribbean swell from the North of the island, which has almost three times the per capita GDP.

What it has left, is sun, sand, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the region – including the Marigot Bay location for the original Rex Harrison Dr Doolittle - and of course its people, who have included two Nobel prize-winners, Derek Walcott, the poet, and Sir Arthur Lewis, the economist who half a century ago developed "development" for the UN. (

Lewis's insights need updating. He compared the price of coffee to steel, because in those days, countries imported and exported tangible commodities. But in his native St Lucia, the sugar cane has gone, and following the American case at the WTO against the EU's banana preferences, this last major export crop is in danger as well. While for such a small island St Lucia has some successful manufacturing, almost half its income and its jobs now depend on tourists arriving with money to spend

For traditional economists and governments, this often seems an undignified way for a country to earn its living. But as one of George Bernard Shaw's characters once remarked, those that talk most about the dignity of labor are usually those that don't do any. There is no rush of jobseekers from the hotels and bars of the tourist resorts seeking backbreaking work in the cane-fields. In fact, British tourists alone take more money to developing countries than the government sends in aid and those tourist dollars, Euros and pounds usually go directly to locals and have less risk of being siphoned off by banks, consultants and politicians who stand ready to ambush aid money. In the case of St Lucia, each year there are over four visitors for each inhabitant, which could cause some culture clash, but the St. Lucians seem to take it in their stride.

As for the "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" syndrome, tourism developments usually bring better infrastructure, roads, power supplies, water and sewage plants to benefit the neighbors. It may be true that there is a certain percentage of tourists who are obnoxious, but that is infinitely preferable to having the more traditional accoutrements of development, a steel smelter, coalmine or nuclear power station in your backyard.

The UN recognized that recently when it accepted the World Tourism Organization as an affiliate, albeit with a slight name change, to UNWTO to distinguish itself from the unpopular World Trade Organization. As Kofi Annan recognized, "Tourism really has the potential of opening up economic space for people around the world. We should encourage tourist developers to go and set up tourist developments," he said pointing out the infrastructure development that comes in their train.

That is not to say that tourism is all wonderful, as anyone who has seen the coasts of Majorca or some parts of the Dominican Republic can testify. For example, cruise ships are usually owned by companies that are so offshored that they are almost extra-terrestrial, paying no taxes anywhere in the globe and ensuring that almost every last cent of the cruise dollars stays on board and off-shore rather than being spent in the islands they visit.

And then there are international resorts, which at least pay rent, taxes and wages in the resorts, and which more responsibly try to source as much as they can locally. What makes St Lucia stand out is that many of the hotels are locally owned. Last month, I was there taking advantage of Air Jamaica's new non-stop service from New York (

St Lucia's Rodney Bay epitomizes how development can work. Medium sized local hotels, like Coco Resorts, Bay Gardens and Village Inn, clustered around the famous harbor employ local people and send their guests to local attractions, such as La Soufriere, the active volcano, and the rainforest, where the Rain Forest Sky Rides chairlift allows what James Joyce would call a scrotum-tightening glide through the canopy of the forest.

Allen Chastanet, who used to work with Air Jamaica, has built the Coco Palm hotel (part of Coco Resorts), which typifies the local resourcefulness. Solar heating panels save imported fuel bills. Hotel wide internet keeps travelers connected, and arrangements with local restaurants and bars allow guests to sign for meals and drinks and pay with their hotel bill.

Local cuisine is Caribbean with a strong French influence and a definite level above the usual tourist destination fodder. To celebrate that, Chastanet and the other local hoteliers are arranging a Rum and Food Festival November 2-5, 2006 to balance the world famous St Lucia Jazz Festival, which also takes place nearby. I should declare an interest, I am helping to organize the Rum Festival-all in the interests of Caribbean development of course.

So has all this tourism and commercialism degraded the culture and society? Not at all. St Lucia now has a national health care plan, which, it is worth noting, makes it more developed than the United States in terms of access to hospital care. The revenue that makes that possible derives from tourism. You can go visit, and sink a tot, sure in the knowledge that you are helping development and the progress towards the Millennium Development Goals far more than your government-and enjoy yourself at the same time! Sir Arthur Lewis would approve-in spirit as it were.

1 comment:

Phoenix Woman said...

Sounds like a good deal all around.

Reminds me: One reason why Hugo Chavez has a growing fan base in Latin America is that he's using his oil money to pay off the IMF loans of countries like Argentina. In exchange, these countries provide him with payment in kind (doctors from Cuba, bananas from other countries, etc.) or in cash, and generally at much better terms than what the IMF was offering. Yeah, he's using up Venezuela's conventional oil reserves doing this, but he's also getting the heavy-oil reserves -- of which there's enough to fuel the world at current consumption rates for the next century -- on line. (Those reserves aren't economically worthwhile unless the price of oil goes over $40 a barrel, which is why they haven't been tapped until recently.)