Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
The new independent nations have come of age and are hoping to put small-island corruption behind them. Tourism is the economic miracle, but the islands are now exposed to international variables.
The new independent nation states saw the rise of a new and more modern government. Locally trained civil servants replaced the colonial “expatriate” administrative staff; and the state became increasingly involved in the economic sectors. Some industries were nationalized, and governments became majority shareholders in others. For example, in Trinidad, thanks to the oil boom of the 1970s, the government became involved in numerous different commercial enterprises. Such changes reflected and expressed wider socioeconomic and cultural changes.
With the growth of industrialization and modernization - electronics in Barbados, oil refining in St Croix - came rural depopulation, with people flocking to the towns in search of a better standard of living. Privately owned condominiums, tracts of middle-class housing, and public-housing projects were built in response. Education was promoted and the regional University of the West Indies (UWI) was founded with main campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados. Airlines were born - an insignia of national pride - like British West Indian Airways (BWIA) in Trinidad (now Caribbean Airlines) and Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT).
Cruise ship entering port at Nassau, Bahamas, 2013.
The nascent independent democracies initially faced problems in adjusting to power with no colonial overseers. On some islands money and politics mixed to encourage an element of government corruption: an ex-prime minister of Dominica was convicted of a plot (backed by South Africa), to overthrow the elected government of his successor; a top cabinet minister in Trinidad had to flee to Panama after being accused of making money on a racecourse complex project; and a leading member of Antigua’s former ruling family, the Birds, was embroiled in gun running and drug dealing.
The money involved in such scandals often originated from international drug rings, arms merchants, and organized crime syndicates. Thus, the small-island politician became entrapped in a world of high-stakes intrigue which he was ill-equipped to deal with.
Private lives, public secrets
There have been political leaders of high caliber, such as Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow in Barbados and Dr Eric Williams and A.N.R. Robinson in Trinidad and Tobago. It is possible, though, for a politician to manipulate a system in which personal charisma is sometimes more important than ideology. Power can be obtained when votes are exchanged for favors, and thus an elaborate network of family, friends, and job-holders is held together by patronage. Since government is the main employer, the juiciest plums are jobs in the local civil service.
It is a kind of market-square politics that emphasizes crowd oratory. In this kind of political arena, private lives become public secrets. In Trinidad it is called picong, mauvais langue, robber talk. To listen to its most skilled practitioners at a Caribbean political meeting is to understand the Caribbean gift for talk, its spirit of ribald irreverence, its street defiance of the high and mighty, which is all pulled together in the famous Trinidadian calypso form.
A banana farmer packing his produce.
Bananas are the perfect crop for the small Caribbean farmer. They take only 6 months to grow, they are happy on steep hillsides, and they fruit all year round, providing a steady cash income. Even a hurricane is not a disaster, as bananas can be quickly replanted and harvested. So it is little wonder that they have been celebrated as the farmer’s “green gold.”
Nonetheless, with the decline of the industry as a result of the EU’s termination of preferential trade deals, and fierce competition from US producers, farmers have been known to turn to another green gold - marijuana.
The effects of big business
With economic development, an affluent middle class emerged, and the basic standards of living, in housing, education, and health, improved immeasurably. But consumerist tastes evolved through American movies, television, and tourism, which generated expectations that could not be realized.
Errol Barrow, the first prime minister of an independent Barbados, said that the high cost of living was not the problem, but the cost of high living. Absolute standards of life have improved, but the gap between rich and poor is still growing.
This is not helped by the tourist industry. From the Virgin Islands to the ABC islands, the landscape is dotted with luxury resorts owned by overseas hotel chains, offering all-inclusive vacations where everything can be paid for at home. Similarly, the growth of the cruise ship industry has led to huge demands on the infrastructure of small islands, but tours and meals are usually paid for on board, leaving passengers limited to spending their money on handicrafts and trinkets while on land. There is employment, but little tax revenue from the employers goes back into the government coffers for the benefit of all. Meanwhile, the rural population is aging and very few young people are going into farming, preferring to work as maids and bartenders.
Worst of all, development by import capital has increased the structural dependency of the region’s economy on multinational companies. Some of them seek cheap labor, others - like the pharmaceutical companies - freedom from environmental legislation at home. Others, especially in high finance, set up offshore operations for worldwide business. These situations are hazardous when a small island becomes host to a single industry. In 1984, for example, major oil companies, such as Exxon, evacuated Aruba and Curaçao, devastating their economies.
The advent of sugar substitutes in Europe and North America has meant that “King Sugar” no longer rules the Caribbean.
The years since the 1990s have not been kind to the region’s beleaguered small-island economies. Traditional export crops have been swamped by competition from other parts of the world. The end of subsidies from Britain and the European Union spelled the end of the struggling sugar industry, which is now confined to small parts of Barbados and Trinidad. “King Sugar” no longer rules.
Preferential treatment for bananas grown by smallholders in St Lucia, Dominica, St Vincent, and Grenada has been halted by a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling, in 1997, that the EU system was illegal. Small growers cannot compete without protection against the big growers of Ecuador or Costa Rica. Neither can the islands’ small manufacturing sectors compete with Latin America, after the introduction of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in 2005, which scrapped tariffs on goods exported into the US and vice versa. Regional economic and legal integration through the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is attempting to deal with the region’s major challenges and opportunities.
Tourism takes over
Most of the Caribbean is now firmly reliant on the tourist industry. Many islands, such as St Kitts and St Lucia, are building on their few remaining tracts of undeveloped coastline in the search for foreign exchange - much to the consternation of the region’s environmentalists - but alternative incomes are few and far between. One such alternative is the trans-shipment of South American cocaine, which remains an (albeit illegal) recourse for many of the region’s urban gangs - and reaches into business and political circles too.
Sailboats ready for action on Anguilla.
Anguilla Tourist Board
Tourism, however, is a fickle industry and demand can evaporate overnight, leaving hotel rooms empty and tour operators twiddling their thumbs. After the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York, travel to the Caribbean took a nose-dive. The 2009-10 international financial crisis had a similar impact, as potential travelers, worried about their livelihoods, decided to stay at home. A hurricane can leave ministers of tourism scrambling to reassure vacationers that their regions are safe, that their hotels are open for business, and that tourist custom is desperately needed.
Visitors from Europe are much sought after because, having traveled further, they stay longer than US visitors, and spread their money around more as a result. Consequently the UK’s green tax increase on airline tickets caused huge consternation in 2010-11 with Caribbean destinations feeling unfairly disadvantaged.
Fortunately, the years 2014 and 2015 saw a recovery in tourism in almost all Lesser Antilles destinations and an increase in the number of visitor arrivals - stay-over European visitor arrivals in particular - and prospects for the near future of the region seem to be favorable.
Ironically, it seems that although the islands may have gained political independence from their colonial masters, they remain dependent on the state of the world economy for their income and prosperity.
Ecotourism, sustainable and community tourism
Tourism is essential to the economy of the islands but the environmental consequences have to be considered.
As man’s footprint on the earth becomes ever larger and the land more downtrodden, so environmental concerns assume greater importance. Small islands, by their very nature, are fragile and need protecting, on land and under water. Large resorts bring in thousands of visitors yearly and generate much-needed employment, while cruise ships spill thousands more on to the streets of harbor towns, keeping taxi drivers and tour guides busy, but at an ever-growing cost to the environment.
Each new hotel comes under pressure from environmentalists to show its green credentials but the sheer volume of people is a concern. The US Virgin Islands, for example, receive more than 2.5 million visitors by air and sea each year, swamping the local population of 0.1 million, while Sint Maarten’s 77,000 residents welcome 1.5 million cruise ship and stay-over visitors. Is this sustainable? Can islands’ infrastructure and natural environment cope? There is a niche market in the Caribbean for “ecotourism,” but what does that term imply?
To some, ecotourism conjures up images of rustic forest cabins along the lines of Dominica’s 3 Rivers, an award-winning lodge with camping and wooden huts on stilts, solar, wind and hydro power, composting toilets, recycled gray water, and chemicals limited only to preventing termites from eating the premises. However, there is now a luxury end to the ecotourism market: Rosalie Bay, near 3 Rivers, is a new, very comfortable, elegant hotel with turtles nesting on the beach. It is also solar- and wind-powered with on-site water filtration, and uses organic produce from its kitchen garden and from local farmers.
Similar attempts to lessen the impact of tourism are being made throughout the Lesser Antilles, from solar showers and lighting at Ecolodge Rendez-Vous in Saba, to an advanced wastewater system at Captain Don’s Habitat in Bonaire. Solar hot water and, increasingly, solar power are common in these sunny islands and many hotels now request that you reuse your towels to conserve scarce water. Much conservation work is going on back-of-house of which guests are oblivious.
Committed to the community
Ecotourism, sustainable tourism and community tourism are descriptions that frequently overlap. Both 3 Rivers and Rosalie Bay take very seriously their commitment to the local community, through employment, training, investment and sponsorship of local events. It took many years to build Rosalie Bay, but once it was done, the hotel retrained the construction workers to become barmen or other hospitality personnel, while their wives, some of whom had never had a job before, trained as cleaners and cooks. All the furniture was made by a local craftsman and the village supplies guides and gardeners. Not one of them had ever worked in tourism before.
Dominica continues to promote community, sustainable tourism with the inauguration of the Waitukubuli Trail. Divided into 14 segments, the trail has been cleared and marked by volunteers from the local communities. In return, hikers on the trail, which runs the length and breadth of the island, will hire local guides when necessary and stay in bed-and-breakfast places or homestays at the end of each segment. Community tourism here will generate employment in rural areas and ensure that revenue stays within the community while having a very low impact on the natural environment.
Munching on natural sugar cane.
Discover Dominica Authority
Bahamian performers at the De Scotiabank Caribana Lime Festival.