Dollars in the sand

Orlando Patterson Published: January 2, 2007

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica: Tourism is a modern global marvel. Every year, according to the World Tourism Organization, 700 million people leave for foreign lands. They spend more than $575 billion, making tourism the world's leading item of foreign trade.

Fifteen million of those travelers, mainly from North America, head for the Caribbean, which is by far the most tourist-dependent region of the world. On smaller islands like St. Lucia, tourism's contribution to the economy exceeds 70 percent, and the annual number of visitors far exceeds the resident population: Antigua's 64,000 residents put out the welcome mat for 231,000 visitors one recent year.

Why do the tourists come? Most analysts cite the three S's: Sun, Sand and Sea. Others add a fourth: Sex. The sex part is gender-neutral, as a stroll though Ocho Rios immediately confirms. Wickedly handsome young men with flowing dreadlocks, some dyed blond, provide rent-a-dread services for women of every nationality. For most, it is a four-day fling; for a few, there is the hope that life will imitate art and, like Stella, they'll get their groove back.

What do the islands gain? Tourism generates desperately needed foreign revenue for the government, creates employment (as high as 60 percent of the jobs in the Bahamas), and makes possible a wide range of support services and industries. For many of the smaller islands, it is a godsend, especially in the face of the collapsing banana and sugar industries.

Nonetheless, the literature on Caribbean tourism is surprisingly critical. Foreign anthropologists complain about the "tourist gaze" and the distortion of local cultures; local chauvinists declaim that "tourism is whorism." These criticisms are largely puerile. In Jamaica, it's the locals who do the gazing while the tourists are busy baking themselves behind the high walls of all-inclusive hotels. If anything, tourism enhances residents' awareness of indigenous cultures, and it supports large numbers of entertainers. Reggae artists have no problem singing dated versions of Harry Belafonte's "Day-oh! Day da light an' me wan' go 'ome" if it allows them to get nasty and ragamuffin the next night in the thriving dance hall music culture.