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Tourisme de masse vs. tourisme alternatif

Caribbean Island Tourism: Pathway to Continued Colonial Servitude

Tourisme des îles de la Caraïbe : le cheminement de l’asservissement colonial
Alfred Wong


Le tourisme est une activité essentielle dans l'économie des îles de la Caraïbe depuis plus de trois décennies. Le modèle économique repose en grande partie sur la présence d'une main-d'œuvre insulaire peu coûteuse qui s'inscrit dans le prolongement des économies coloniales construites sur les plantations. Le tourisme de masse rencontre des limites en matière de capacité de charge sur les plus petits Etats insulaires. Les grandes sociétés transnationales de tourisme qui contrôlent les bateaux de croisières ou les hôtels contraignent les gouvernements souverains à faire toujours plus de concessions fiscales. La concurrence entre les destinations de la Caraïbe est exacerbée par la concurrence internationale autour des revenus du tourisme. Les Etats de la région peinent à trouver de nouvelles ressources pour maintenir et développer le secteur du tourisme. Les offres alternatives, entre le sexe, le jeu, l'évasion fiscale, le médical, le sport, la culture et l'écologie sont mises en œuvre. Certaines de ces offres sont, en effet, dégradantes pour les personnes et leur tradition culturelle et n'améliorent pas le bien-être économique de la population de manière satisfaisante. Une nouvelle stratégie pour remplacer le tourisme balnéaire classique ainsi que le tourisme alternative du moment s'impose d'urgence.

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1Caribbean had a long history of idyllic paradise which induces consumption, luxury and privilege (Sheller, 2001). Present-day tourism reflects to a large extent of the legacy of past colonial practices. Colonization of the Caribbean began with the First Contact with Europeans in 1492. In the following centuries, numerous wars were fought among Europeans for political and economic control of these islands. After sugar cane plantations were introduced in the 18th Century, the Caribbean islands became the most lucrative colonies of the European powers. The then indigenous people, viz., Arawaks and Caribs, were worked to death to be replaced by slaves imported en masse from West Africa. And when slave trade was officially abolished in the mid19th Century, indentured workers were subsequently imported from India to work on these plantations.

2Mass tourism in the Caribbean began in earnest in the 1980s when air travel became economically accessible to middle-class North Americans and Europeans. By the 1990s, large-scale sea cruises became commonplace for these class of tourists. During the past decade, tourism trade has been expanding steadily to capture the disposable income available to these middle class citizens from abroad. Indeed the economy of many Caribbean island states is now organized and re-configured to provide goods and services to these ”wealthy” tourists.

3The subject of Caribbean tourism has been studied extensively during the past 3 decades (See, for example, ECLAC, 2009). There have been many studies undertaken to celebrate the benefits of mass tourism (See, for example, Célimène and Marques, 2008; Brida and Fabro, 2010). For the period 2000-2004, about 70% of the tourists were from USA and Canada (Khandelwal et al., 2007). The orthodox consensus has been that tourism in any form must continue and expand as it is the economic life lines of many island states (Bulmer-Thomas, 2001; Célimène and Marques, 2009; Jelsma et al., 2011; Holder, 2014). This high dependency is very precarious as Caribbean tourism is dependent on, among other things, prevailing economic conditions of North American and European Union states, and the consent of large trans-national tourism corporations (Pandey, 2011; Anon., 2013a). The latter conditionality is dependent largely on the offered cost structure. Interestingly, despite the evident limitations of natural resources such as potable water, some islands such as Aruba (Cole and Razak, 2009) are still pursuing the strategy of tourism expansion.

4This study was undertaken to explore the developmental track of present tourism industry of the Caribbean islands and its subsequent perpetuation of social-economic depravity and dependency for the Caribbean citizens on the neo-colonial style tourism.

1. Methods

5Statistical data analyzed were largely based on those published annually by the Caribbean Tourism Organization ( National economic data were sourced from the World Bank, International Labour Organization and various official statistical agencies of regional national governments. Gross national income (GNI) is given as the sum of gross national product plus remittances and other financial transfers from abroad. It is generally recognized that GNI does not provide any measure of the distribution of economic wealth among the citizens.

6For the sake of uniformity, only island states were considered in this study. Cuban statistical data were analyzed cautiously because Cuba’s social-economic system is substantially different from the capitalistic free-market model of the other island states, and the continuing political impact of more than 50 years of USA trade embargo on Cuban economic development.

2. Economic and social impact

2.1. Dynamics

7Dependency of many Caribbean states on tourism is well known (McSorley and McElroy, 2007; Anon., 2009; Allen, 2010). Proponents of classical tourism have been pleading for more tourists from the EU states (See, for example, Applewhaite, 2011) and even advocating treatment of tourism as a part of US foreign aid (Croes and Schmidt, 2007).

8Intensity of Caribbean tourism is generally characterized by “arrivals” which is defined generally as the number of visitors landing by air or by sea in the particular country for stays ranging from a few hours to several days or more.

9Table 1 shows the recorded arrivals in 2010. Note that the same-day visitors, i.e., from cruise ships, was a significant percentage of the total arrivals in most locations. The total number of visitors recorded in 2010 was about 37 million. In consideration of the total population (about 42 million, excluding Belize, Guyana, Guyane, Mexico, Suriname and Venezuela) of the islands, this level of tourism is indeed massive. The issue of congestion has been identified as a problematic issue of importance (ECLAC, 2005a). For example, Basseterre (St. Kitts and the Grenadines) with a population of about 13,000 would be overwhelmed by the disembarkation of 2,800 same-day visitors from a mid-size cruise ship calling into its harbour. The apparent sudden increase in population for the day would be nearly 20%! For St. John’s Harbour (Antiqua and Barbuda), there could be at least one cruise ship arriving daily during the peak 6-month season between November and May. The population of St. John’s is only about 24,000.

Table 1. Number of visitors to the Caribbean islands in 2010


U same-day




Used in


Cruise ship


Foreign territory






Anguilla (UK)












Aruba (NL)


















Bonaire (NL)






British Virgin Islands (UK)






Cayman Islands (UK)












Curacao (NL)












Dominican Republic












Guadeloupe (FR) #

















Martinique (FR)






Montserrat (UK)






Puerto Rico (US)






Sabab (NL)






St. Eustatius (NL)






St. Kitts-Nevis






Saint Lucia






St. Maarten (NL)






St. Vincent-Grenadines












Turks-Caicos (UK)






US Virgin Islands (US)










#including St. Barts; *excluding Belize, Guyana, Mexico, Suriname and Venezuela

ND= no data

Source: Adapted from statistics of the Caribbean Tourism Organiza76tion (2014)

10In 2010, the arrivals had expended about US$22.4 billion (CTO, 2014). The average spending per visitor was US$600. Figure 1 shows that for some island states, the arrival expenditure had accounted for about 25% of the total GNI. Did this spending make a significant difference to the well-being of the island citizens? A comparison of the legal minimum wage and the per capita GNI is deemed to be a good indicator of the infiltrated economic impact of tourism to the least wealthy sector of the society. Figure 2 summarizes the minimum wage scale in different Caribbean island entities. Note the minimum wage scale is much higher in territories controlled by France and by the USA. Figure 3 suggests that low wages (as depicted by the low minimum wage) may be a factor in the number of tourist arrivals. National governments are thus predictably eager to suppress wage increases as a simple means to maintain (and increase) the attractiveness of the country as a preferred tourist destination. Note that the French DOMs, viz., Guadeloupe and Martinique, are particularly “handicapped” to attract more tourists by the high wage structure in their compulsory adoption of that of metropolitan France. Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands (territories of the USA), as well as Bahamas could be considered to be special cases in which North American tourists frequently use the San Juan, Charlotte Amalie and Nassau ports as convenient embarkation and disembarkation points of Caribbean cruises.

Figure 1. Dependency of tourism in selected polities in 2010

Figure 1. Dependency of tourism in selected polities in 2010

Figure 2. Minimum wage of selected Caribbean islands, ca. 2013

Figure 2. Minimum wage of selected Caribbean islands, ca. 2013

Note: where required, the estimated annual wage was calculated from hourly wage x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks per year (including 2 weeks of paid vacation).

Figure 3. Minimum wage and total visitor arrivals

Figure 3. Minimum wage and total visitor arrivals

Note: where required, the estimated annual wage was calculated from hourly wage x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks per year (including 2 weeks of paid vacation).

11By maintaining low wages, the economic benefits of enhanced tourist inflow (and subsequent increase in visitors’ expenditure) do not fully reach the majority of the workers in the tourist trade, and certainly not to anyone working in the non-tourism sector of the economy. The unequal economic consequences of such aggressive development of tourism have been duly noted by various researchers (See, for example, Canterbury, 2005). To a large extent, the lowly-paid workers are toiling in the tourist trade is likened to the monoculture plantation workers during the colonial days, in which workers are compensated minimally. Zapata (2007) has noted that tourism has essentially failed to deliver the promised prosperity for the indigenous people at large. Who are the ultimate beneficiaries of tourism? Regardless of whatever means to attract the middle class tourists, the real profit is always extracted for export. There is little or no reason why the drive towards developing luxury tourism, i.e., attracting fewer tourists with higher disposable incomes, would necessarily provide better economic benefits for the workers at large. Any incremental gain in profit is naturally retained by tourism corporations and their local collaborators. It is highly problematic that there would be any prospect for substantial improvements for the most of the workers.

2.2. Hotels and resorts

12Large scale luxurious hotels are built by trans-national corporations whose sole operating objective is the minimization of costs to maximize profit. Sovereign governments are coerced and bribed frequently to keep local wages and corporation taxes purposely low to meet the profit-driven demands of these hotel-resort operators. Productivity is often lectured by various multi-lateral quasi-government financial institutions to be the essence of competitiveness (See, for example, Archibald et al., 2008; Craigwell and Worrell, 2008; ECLAC, 2009). Productivity is generally characterized as the ratio of the value of output of goods and/or services to the value of inputs such as material goods and/or services. Higher ratio means higher productivity. In the neoliberal lexicon, productivity equates low wages, regardless of their adequacy for living minimally. Just like the cruise ship business, the business model of mass land-base tourism as controlled by large trans-national corporations is based essentially on lowest cost of goods and services.

13As a means of boosting and maintaining the tourism business, Roessingh et al. (2008) had proposed active cooperation between government and local community to serve the commercial interest of corporations which have the sole power to realize tourism. This approach does not appear to be novel; it only re-enforce the common practice of “doing what is necessary” to attract the tourist revenue, which could include the “destruction of paradise” if it is needed. In essence, many islands have become captive servants of large trans-national corporate operators of resort hotels.

14With each island state fighting to provide least-cost touristic services, there is an unrelenting downward pressure on local wage scale. It is conceded however that these low wages may be somewhat better than working, for example, as farm workers in banana or sugar cane plantations, in many instances. Nevertheless, inter-island competition is intense through branding and re-branding (Conway and Timms, 2010; Daye, 2010). The reality is that such an approach only re-distributes the essentially fixed pool of tourists to different islands, without addressing the fundamental social-economic issues. For example, Saint Lucia, Martinique and Dominica, islands in the Eastern Caribbean, offer similar climatic and natural features for the foreign tourists. Saint Lucia and Dominica could compete easily against Martinique by virtue of the substantially lower wage structure of their labour force. The competition between Saint Lucia and Dominica is somewhat more difficult as the already low cost structure of both island states is comparable. Thus, the competitive strategy of offering the “lowest price” remains.

15If the expansion of (mass) tourism could be achieved, the national per capita GNI could be expected to rise concomitantly. However, in the realization of this objective, it may be necessary for the government to suppress the minimum wage scale purposely to maintain “competitiveness” regionally as well as globally. There could obviously be little or no additional economic benefits accrued to the workers in this scenario. Figure 4 illustrates the possible shape of the “mass tourism promotion” curve.

Figure 4. Relationship between minimum wage and per capita GNI

Figure 4. Relationship between minimum wage and per capita GNI

Note: where required, the estimated annual wage is calculated from hourly wage x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks per year (including 2 weeks of paid vacation).

2.3. Neoliberal free-market principles

16Persuading local vacation hotels as well as cruise ship to purchase locally produced foods has been suggested as a positive means to broaden the economic benefits to rural citizens (Ashley et al., 2006; Timms, 2006; Timms, 2008; Dodds and Joppe, 2009; Torres and Momsen, 2011; Beckford and Campbell, 2013). In the context of a free-market capitalistic society, this proposition may be just wishful thinking. A business corporation, e.g., hotel-resort operator, would naturally purchase acceptable-quality goods and services only at the lowest price. There is absolutely no moral obligation for companies to do otherwise (Wong and Hallsworth, 2013; Hallsworth and Wong, 2014). Compulsory purchases of local goods at higher prices are contrary to the globalized neoliberal principles of the free market. North American and European governments would never allow this anti-free market situation to occur. Moreover, even if local farmers (or farm cooperatives) were able to secure a supply contract, onerous terms and conditions could be expected to be dictated by trans-national corporations. The tyranny of colonialism would merely be replaced by that of neo-colonialism, in which the indigenous farmers are toiling to enrich the corporate buyers of goods and services.

17There are undoubtedly small profitable sales of trinkets and other souvenirs to the “arrivals”. Local tour companies are generally organized for minimal sightseeing and maximal directed shopping for trinkets and other souvenirs. The economic benefits accrued by these tour operators are miniscule in comparison to those extracted by trans-national hotel owners. And if these land-base tours emerge to become economically attractive, hotel-resort operators would surely enter the market to expropriate additional profits away from local entrepreneurs.

2.4. Continued assault on indigenous cultural dignity and history

18The expansion of tourism has effectively cause the local culture and associated practices to be modified for meeting the expectation of tourists as designed by trans-national tourism operators (Guerrón Montero, 2011). Scher (2011) has observed that heritage tourism has degenerated to become a fake performance for tourist revenue. In this pursuit of maintaining and expanding classical tourism, many of the indigenous cultural and environmental attributes are purposely corrupted for touristic entertainment values. Thematic framework of tropical-paradise tourism often mimics past colonial regimes (Titley, 2000; Strachan, 2002). Exploiting “rich agriculture heritage” to tourism has also been proposed to establish distinct branding of the preferred destination (Nelson, 2012). However, in this approach, the brutal hardship and suffering endured by slaves during the colonial era would need to be conveniently omitted. The enjoyment and amusement of tourists are paramount. It is common practice in many tourist hotels that their staff members are often dressed purposely in fake colonial costumes to project the rich agricultural heritage. The practice of stooping and bowing in the provision of services to tourists becomes mandatory. In this context, black-skinned hotel servants are obviously preferable (Titley, 2000).

19Cultural tourism to meet the expectations of the tourists has been suggested to be a means to achieve better distribution of economic returns (ECLAC, 2005b: 27). But the broader question is why European and North American tourists would be interested in exploring the dark colonial past in the sun-filled and fun-filled vacation paradise of present day? Heritage tourism might be an attractive business if it re-enacts the heydays of plantation colonialism for the amusement of the tourists.

3. Alternatives to classical mass tourism

20To date, little or no practicable improvements to classical mass tourism have yet been realized. The contemporary initiatives of “sustainable tourism” and “eco-tourism” have gained prominence in recent years as a possible competitive edge to maintain current revenue and/or generate new revenue. One of the premises is that in the worst case, there would be fewer tourists to spend higher amount of money per tourist to result in a revenue-neutral situation.

3.1. Sustainable tourism

21There has been considerable interest in “sustainable” tourism recently (See, for example, Pattullo, 2005; McElroy, 2005; Dodds and McElroy, 2008; CTO, 2008; Dodds and Joppe, 2009; Murphy, 2011). But the definition of “sustainable” is elusive as its scope and practice by the tourism corporations and collaborating governments may have little or nothing to do with protecting the people and the ambient environment. For example, re-use of bathroom towels by hotel guests for a few days may be flagged as a good sustainable practice (Charles, 2013). But these cosmetic changes would be insufficient to address the fundamental issue of over-use of local resources for the benefits of tourists and to the detriment of the local inhabitants. In reality, the much-touted “corporate social responsibility” is essentially a monetarized undertaking. Neither morality nor benevolence has any role in this matter at all (Hallsworth and Wong, 2014).

22Interestingly, one of the scenarios evaluated for “sustainable” tourism development in Curaçao includes more construction of hotels and resorts, i.e., bétonisation, collaboratively by the government and private enterprises (Jelsma et al., 2011). Bétonisation has been noted to be a cause of continuing social and economic discontent among the Martiniquans (Gossen, 2006; Wong and Gomes, 2012). Building more hotels means only the use of more scarce local resources such as water and electric power. For example, tourist development has “inadvertently” caused severe water deprivation to the local inhabitants in Cockpit County, Jamaica (Miller, 2011).

3.2. Eco-tourism

23Intense promotion of eco-tourism (See, for example, Augier, 2007; Garraway, 2008; Sanders, 2011) could easily result in the destruction of the remaining pristine natural environment (Pattlulo, 2005; Saffache and Pelis, 2005; Zappino, 2005; Dehoorne et al., 2005; Miller, 2011; Dehoorne and Augier, 2011). If the number of all tourists visiting the Caribbean islands were reduced to just 10%, i.e., from about 37 million in 2010 to about 4 million, the eco-tourism scheme might still be too overwhelming to cease being “sustainable”. In other words, the human and associated environmental footprints would remain very large. Moreover, the competitiveness of one island state versus another island state would still be founded fundamentally on the principle of least-cost. This business model does not necessarily improve the livelihood of the people, as the island is trampled by “new” eco-tourism. Agro-tourism (ECLAC, 2005b; Torres and Momsen, 2011) could expect to have similar structural problems, if there was no mandatory significant re-distribution of wealth.

3.3. Other novel tourism-based means

24In view of heightened competition among the various Caribbean states as well as countries elsewhere globally, various novel niche tourism schemes have been proposed for improving the local economy (See, for example, Brida and Fabro, 2010). Despite the potential for the propagation of crime, diseases (Padilla et al., 2009; Orisatoki et al., 2009; George and Richards, 2012; Guilamo-Ramos et al., 2013) and human exploitation such as sex tourism (Herold et al., 2001; Grenade, 2007; Jones and Jemmott, 2010; Pruitt and LaFont, 1995; Sengupta, 2010; Weichselbaumer, 2012), casino-style gaming tourism, illicit narcotics (McElroy and Roccanti, 2005; McElroy, 2009; Jessop, 2012) and tax havens (Leigh et al., 2012) have frequently been promoted and implemented variously to afford a competitive edge in attracting tourists globally. The adage is that any immoral or illegal touristic activities could be regularized expediently by government fiat, on an as-required basis. It is indeed a sad outcome for the dignity and self-esteem of Caribbean nationhood.

25Other less controversial alternative approaches would include geriatric retirement residency, culinary tourism (e.g., Okumus et al., 2013), medical tourism (e.g., Connell, 2013), captive-animal amusement aquariums, volunteer tourism (e.g., Lyons et al., 2012; Wearing and McGehee, 2013), religious tourism (e.g., Martínez Cárdenas, 2011) and sports tourism (e.g., Dupont, 2011). But in all cases, the setting could be essentially similar to that of gated hotel-resort communities which cater almost exclusively to “wealthy” visitors from Europe and North America. In essence, the net economic benefits to the local people would just be more menial service jobs at minimum wages. No change in social and economic justice for the people could be realized.

26Continuing deep economic disparity between the “wealthy” foreign tourists and the local population (Cabezas, 2008) manifests increasing resentment and local crimes against tourists. Popular frustration in increasing maldistribution of wealth is exacerbated by aggressive tourism development. It may be noted that most of the studies reported to date have been on incidences of local crimes impacting the tourist trade (See, for example, Anon., 2002; McElroy and Roccanti, 2005; McElroy et al., 2007; Griffin, 2010; Padilla and McElroy, 2010; Jessop, 2012). More police and armed-guard protection for tourists in isolated secured locations are routinely suggested to be the remedy for combating local crimes. There has been virtually no discourse to redress the underlying social-economic causes for the reduction of local crimes.


27Mass tourism has become a significant source of revenue for many Caribbean states. The number of arrivals (visitors) recorded was more than 37 million in 2010. The infrastructure and resources may be reaching the limit of expansion, especially for small island states. Other avenues of maintaining and increasing revenue considered (and implemented in some cases) have included eco-tourism, agro-tourism, sex tourism, medical tourism, sports tourism, casino-style gambling, tax havens and narcotics. Each approach has some serious technical and legal drawbacks. There is an acute need to discard the dependency on tourism in any form.

28A practicable alternative to afford tangible enduring economic benefits to island citizens would be the exploitation of the endowed tropical climatic conditions for a new agricultural regime for food self-sufficiency and for export. Most importantly, this strategy should avoid being a repetition of the traditional monoculture plantation economy. In particular, the indigenous farmers should not become landless peasants once again for the trans-national agri-food business corporations. The unfettered access to the market in Europe and North America could be approached from the perspectives of cash payment for the reduction of climate change-global warming and of meaningful reparation for past colonial misdeeds (Anon., 2013b; Shafy, 2014). Moreover, a substantial restructuring of the farm-to-fork distribution system would be required in parallel so that the local growers would truly reap a significant share of the retail value of the produce sold.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Dependency of tourism in selected polities in 2010
Fichier image/png, 11k
Titre Figure 2. Minimum wage of selected Caribbean islands, ca. 2013
Légende Note: where required, the estimated annual wage was calculated from hourly wage x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks per year (including 2 weeks of paid vacation).
Fichier image/png, 18k
Titre Figure 3. Minimum wage and total visitor arrivals
Légende Note: where required, the estimated annual wage was calculated from hourly wage x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks per year (including 2 weeks of paid vacation).
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Titre Figure 4. Relationship between minimum wage and per capita GNI
Légende Note: where required, the estimated annual wage is calculated from hourly wage x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks per year (including 2 weeks of paid vacation).
Fichier image/jpeg, 136k
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Alfred Wong, « Caribbean Island Tourism: Pathway to Continued Colonial Servitude », Études caribéennes [En ligne], 31-32 | Août-Décembre 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/etudescaribeennes.7524

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Alfred Wong

Social Justice Group, Friends of Aboriginal Health, Post Office Box 34173, Vancouver V6J 4N1, Canada;

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