Paradise for Sale: how the Caribbean is being defined in terms of tourism

Image courtesy of Creative Commons/ fundable.org

One of the key components of a good vacation is hot, sunny weather. Add still waters, crystal clear beaches and a five-star resort to the equation, and you have the perfect getaway. An escape from the robotic nine-to-five job and bleak winter weather.

This white sandy beach narrative is highly profitable and constantly repackaged in marketing strategies, catered specifically for the global north tourist. The notion of paradise is the driving force behind the Caribbean’s tourism industry, but that paradise is being ransacked by the very industry promoting it. How long can the industry continue to profit off of paradise, while ignoring its overwhelmingly negative environmental impacts?

Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar, a sociology professor and the academic coordinator for Caribbean studies at Ryerson’s Chang School, explained that cruise ships are non-sustainable. “In regards specifically to the Caribbean, no cruise ship is Caribbean-owned and operated, and therefore these companies do not have the best interests of the region in mind,” she said.

These “floating cities” may as well be massive pollution machines. The average cruise ship can carry up to 3,000 passengers; it produces nearly 800,000 litres of sewage and nearly 95,000 litres of oily bilge water (waste fluids from the ship that includes oil, grease and cleaning fluids). In addition, each of these passengers on board produce their own personal waste that can end up in the ocean.

At the end of last month, Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, pledged to eliminate single use plastics from 38 ships. These disposable plastics are used for food and beverage services on board.

It’s definitely going to take a lot more than cutting single-use disposable plastics to alleviate this growing problem. In fact, this attempt at environmental change is inconsequential, when we remember that Symphony of the Seas, the Royal Caribbean’s latest giant, debuted this March as the world’s largest cruise ship.

Rising at 18 decks tall, it will carry an estimated 6,600 passengers and burn nearly 250,000 litres of diesel fuel a day. As these vessels get bigger and bigger, so will the pollution.

Perhaps the worst thing about these environmental factors is that local residents in Caribbean countries are excluded from this narrative entirely. They’re expected to put up with the exploitative ways of the industry, all because of the economic benefits it brings to the region.

The tourism industry is the backbone of many Caribbean economies, which creates a reliance on the industry for economic gain and encourages a habit of placing these economic benefits above all else.

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the total contribution of travel and tourism to the Caribbean was $56.4 billion US in 2016. In the upcoming 2017 and 2018 reports, this is expected to increase.

This profit-driven mentality can be very harmful according to Hernandez-Ramdwar, who said that this “leisure-based industry” that relies on the construction of paradise ignores underlying issues in the region. “In the Caribbean, it means erasing and disguising the Caribbean’s ugly colonial history and its equally ugly contemporary reality of poverty, debt and so on,” she said.

The tourism industry is also notorious for environmental degradation with water sports, waste dumping and sewage. More importantly, tourists waste twice as much as local residents, but after their vacation abroad tourists can simply pack up their things, while local residents are left to deal with the consequences. The disparity between the tourist and the local — the haves and the have-nots — poses the question of who is entitled to paradise and who it belongs to.

Hernandez-Ramdwar thinks the solution lies with education. She said that Caribbean people and youth need to gain environmental consciousness. “[They] need to move towards greater sustainability or their countries will disappear.” Hernandez-Ramdwar also urged tourists to be open to education as well. “Those who patronize the Caribbean through tourism, North Americans and Europeans primarily, need to be educated as well on the impact of their tourism and how they can be better tourists,” she said.

The Caribbean is often defined by this powerhouse industry; an industry of all-inclusive resorts that sell powdery sand beaches and warm tropical weather. It profits off the very idea of paradise, but fails to compensate for the environmental damage it causes. This habit of overlooking the pitfalls of the industry to prioritize economic gain must end. The truth is this paradise is rapidly becoming endangered.