Today's visitors arrive at a homogenized, beaten down "McJamaica" from a friend...
Food for thought... and how true the last paragraph - expanding cruise industry, disappearing mangroves, beach-front developments. How many elders could write the same article about Hopkins or Placencia?
The cost of tourismToday's visitors arrive at a homogenized, beaten-down 'McJamaica'
We in the Caribbean march lock-step to take real places and make them theme-park attractions.
As snowstorms lash the U.S. its citizen’s dream of tropical islands - and many get on a plane and go to one. Some go to Negril Jamaica where I sometimes spent weekends as a child. In Jamaica, as elsewhere in the world, American tourists come and spend money. In fact, they're a global economic engine: U.S. travelers spent SU8 billion abroad in 2008, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, more than the citizens of any other nation. Two-thirds of all visitors to the Caribbean are North Americans.
Unfortunately winter-paradise tourism often comes at a great cost.
When I visited Negril as a child, we’d go with other families; rent a basic little house, the kids would play Monopoly during afternoon rainstorms while the adults napped, and we’d all go crabbing at night. At the time the crabs were everywhere, and mangrove forests edged a wide, white-sand beach where not one item of man-made garbage was to be found. The mosquitoes were legion, the water gin-clear, and the town was supported by a viable artisanal fishing industry. The sand-bottom swimming areas were framed by sea grass beds, which held that important herbivore - the sea urchin. We were all expert at taking the spines of sea urchins out of our bare feet.
Today Negril is a very different place. The gin-clear water is now murky. The swamp has been partly drained by canals that take the nutrient-loaded water from sugar cane farms straight into the sea, along with partially treated sewage, which causes an explosion of algae, which smothers the coral reef. Most of the beach vegetation has been removed, as have many seagrass beds. Even the famous seven-mile beach is eroding. There are still crabs, but you have to look hard for them. The mosquitoes are manageable, courtesy of the insecticide Malathion. Hotels, ever larger, line the beach. Power boats and Jet Skis rend the air with the sounds of motors. The fishing is poor.
Negril has been destroyed so the tourists would come. And they have come.
The making of a tourist resort goes like this: First, roads and an airport. Then there must be places to stay, and these have ever escalating requirements: air conditioning, unlimited supplies of hot and cold water, food familiar to the tourist, along with a few items they associate with the tropical paradise of their imaginations, like lobster. They need TVs in their rooms, reggae classes, rides on banana boats - literally inflated bananas pulled along behind speedboats - and the usual sailing, water and jet skiing, paragliding and scuba diving to a much-degraded coral reef. They need jetties and raked beaches, because every day the sea brings up an embarrassment of garbage. They need a giant swimming pool and at least one hot tub. The staff must be smiling, photogenic and able to explain the one dish at every meal that is said to be Jamaican. The tourists don't need to know that the fish they are fed, here at the edge of the Caribbean Sea, are Chinese tilapia, or that the tasteless cantaloupe comes from farms bigger than countries. And they don't care to know what the people serving them have lost to create a tropical paradise – namely; their fishing beaches, their communities, their independence.
I have given up on our own governments, even our own people, because we in the Caribbean have swallowed the message whole: Tourism is our savoir. We march lock-step to take real places and make them theme-park attractions. I want to speak now to the visitors - to the 40 million Americans who travel abroad, I want to ask them: Is this really what you want? If the answer is yes, please build it within your own borders. Send us only the travelers, the ones who leave home for reasons beyond just wanting to be warm. They should be willing to risk a few mosquito bites and sea-urchin spines to go crabbing at the edge of a swamp, to swim in gin-clear water, or to nap through a thunderstorm.
Diana McCaulay is chief executive officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust and author of the novel "Dog-Heart.”