Tourism ministers in Jamaica and St Lucia have compared foreign-owned and operated hotels to “plantation systems” and called for a fairer distribution of the travel industry’s profits.
Hitting out at large travel firms’ poor record on wealth distribution, Jamaica’s tourism minister Edmund Bartlett said: “The labour market in tourism is akin to the plantation system – most tourism workers have no tenure and work seasonally. We tend to align service with servitude.”
Speaking at the launch of his book on tourism resilience and recovery, Mr Bartlett warned that the Covid recovery risked exacerbating existing inequalities in an industry where 80 per cent of stakeholders are small-and-medium-enterprises that receive less than 20 per cent of the revenue.
“The wealth of tourism flows to the 20 per cent,” he told Travel Weekly.
Speaking to i, Dr Ernest Hilaire, St Lucia’s tourism minister said he agreed with the comments by his Jamaican counterpart and quoted St Lucian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott who dubbed Caribbean resorts “plantations by the sea” that perpetuate “slavery without any chains”.
Dr Hilaire, who assumed office in January 2022 after the Labour Party won a general election in July 2021 with a mandate to shake up the island’s travel industry, has framed the fight for a fairer economy as a hangover from colonialism.
“We need to deconstruct the tourism industry. It is a continuation of the neo-colonial structure,” he said.
The comments come amid a wider backlash against business as usual in the tourism and travel industry, as nations across the Caribbean and the world look to chart an equitable and sustainable recovery from the Covid pandemic.
While acknowledging the huge benefits that tourism has brought to St Lucia, where it accounts for 65 per cent of GDP, Dr Hilaire says that profits are “heavily skewed in favour of the large resorts and largely foreign ownership of those resorts and hotels.”
In response, the St Lucian government has laid out extensive new legislation to combat inequality and increase local ownership and participation in the industry.
A new Community Tourism Agency will identify products, services and opportunities for community tourism, then create, manage, develop, and market them to visitor markets around the world.
Plans include local training in business development, encouraging large hotels to source as much of their food produce, arts and crafts domestically, and face-lifts for little-visited towns and villages to increase visitor spend.
There are ambitious plans for an Airbnb-style central booking engine for community-based activities and accommodation and state funding once ring fenced to help support the hotel industry is to be opened up to the wider tourism sector.
Meanwhile, on neighbouring Barbados, Minister of Tourism and International Transport Senator Lisa Cummins, whose agenda Mr Bartlett has praised, says she will shift the focus to the quality, not quantity of arrivals and give more international exposure to local hotel brands.
On the reformers’ side is clear evidence of a growing market for the kind of local, authentic experiences that tourist ministers are hoping to promote, especially among millennials.
Jamie-Lee Abtar, co-founder of What’s Hot Barbados, a website that highlights independent activities, eateries and shops on the island, has praised initiatives by large travel firms including Sandals’ 40 for 40 community initiative that is supporting 40 sustainable community projects around the Caribbean but agrees that more needs to be done to help locals participate more directly in the tourism economy.
She told i that while holidaymakers should be able to enjoy their all-inclusive hotel and relax by the pool, they might also take a minute to think about how their holiday is impacting the local community.
“Even if it’s just one time, think to yourself okay, I want to support a local business or find a local restaurant,” she said.
“Go to the concierge and ask them or check What’s Hot Barbados, where we’ve got lots of different local places that are run by locals that you can support and give back and really, truly help.”
Asked if he was concerned about a pushback from vested interests opposing his government’s reforms Mr Bartlett said that so far, hoteliers had been positive about his plans which he has been careful to frame as creating a bigger pie for everyone.
However, he cautioned: “People with slices already, don’t want to take a chance to see if they will get a bigger slice.”
Dr Hilaire believes that wider tourism trends will deliver a tailwind to his plans and that new market demands for more community-based tourism will force traditional stakeholders to adapt.
“What is helping us is that this is also part of an international trend. St Lucia is not in isolation, or an outlier trying to do something that everybody else thinks is unnecessary,” he said.
And his vision for the perfect holiday on the island?
“One where you can interact with the people of St Lucia, to enjoy our creole-ness – that mixture of French, English, African and Indian – and what it has created over the years in terms of our personality. For me, the ideal experience is one which balances the physical beauty of the island, the local experiences, and interactions with local people.”
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