by Carol Spearman, Becketwood Member
Rowland and I were looking forward to a trip across the ocean from Jamaica to the port of Tilbury, on the River Thames, about 15 minutes from our apartment in England. We flew to Jamaica two days early to avoid the possibility of a snowstorm. The delays in immigration, the chaos of finding luggage, waiting to get transport to the resort, and the long check-in process all seemed well worth the wait as we were greeted by 80-degree temperatures and sunshine.
A conversation with the hotel van driver awakened memories of our tourism work from 1988 to 1993. Rowland and I met when we both accepted an offer to work for Interface, a charity initiated by a retired Church of England canon. Edward, our boss, was establishing a center working on the interface between church and society, part of a movement across Europe. He was helping the unemployed train for new jobs and was renovating an old flourmill as a business incubator. He was interested in the work I’d been doing in helping companies provide job placement and creative workforce alternatives to businesses facing downsizing and shutdowns. Rowland offered experience and commitment to peace and justice work across faiths. Edward’s most passionate interest, however, was alternative tourism, as a way of providing positive person-to-person experiences. As the mill filled with small businesses, we became active members of Tourism Concern and took over a nonprofit travel agency, where the proceeds were committed to tourism issues in the developing world. Memories of our work haunted me throughout our trip.
By our second day in Jamaica, I could see that foreign interests, particularly those of the United States, dominate the island’s economy. Our driver had told us that there is almost no employment outside the tourism industry. There is little agricultural production and food is imported, primarily from the US. It reminded me of all of the tourism issues already looming in the 1980s: limited water supplies consumed by golf courses and tourists’ daily showers, foreign resorts that prohibited fishing and swimming by the indigenous people, gated resorts where tourists had no exposure to the local culture.
Our tourism work in the 80s involved being a part of a coalition trying to inform tourists, soldiers and business travelers about the growing abuse of children in sex tourism in Asia. Countries that established R&R sites for the military and the fear of AIDS had pushed the age of prostitutes lower and lower. Children were brought from remote villages to major cities like Bangkok. Some were enticed by offers of work in the city, others were bought from desperate parents, and some were kidnapped. These children were drugged and abused and sold several times a day as “virgins.” There was no fear of prosecution for a pedophile, a soldier, or a casual tourist enticed by a brochure or advertisement that promised to deliver it “all.” Our British coalition was infiltrated and forced to end its work, I lost my work visa and returned to the US. In despair, I wrote a screenplay and a novel about the situation and watched as exploitation diminished the small gains, and modern-day slavery spread across the world.
As I recall those difficult months, I am looking at the ocean from a balcony, but below me is a steady stream of cars, buses and trucks, honking their horns, stopping and going, with the occasional siren and blaring of music. We will soon be going to lunch, where the food is imported, tasteless and filled with chemicals. Tomorrow, we get on the ship. Where will their food supply come from? I will try to ask that question. What will the next island bring? Will it be more of the same or will there be some “bright spots” here in the Caribbean where the residents have managed to put feeding their own population ahead of the pressure to use the land for commercial development? Will there be islands where diversification of the economy is still seen as important for their own security?
In Ghana, West Africa, many years ago, I found that the only coffee available was instant Nescafé, although they were growing coffee as a cash crop. They added Carnation milk to it, but it didn't make it taste any better. Years later, when I returned to Ghana, young people at a conference were asking the question – why do we export our raw coffee and then buy a powdered instant Nescafé product? One young man had a grandfather who was drying and roasting his own beans and it made the young man curious. I wonder if young people in Ghana have influenced this practice. I wonder if they are asking why they need oil and gas imports and nuclear energy, when they could supply all their energy from the sun and the wind. As we continued our trip I pondered about the same questions as we moved from island to island.
Over the years we have seen the rare example of places that have controlled their own tourism development, using local developers, builders and food suppliers. A few islands have committed to ensuring that their energy and food supplies sustain their own population. In the Portuguese Azores, years ago, a guide was proud to tell us they raised “happy cows” and organic tea, and used geothermal power for all their energy needs. Tourism was important to them, but it didn’t dominate their economy. I look for those places and believe they have a better chance of survival in a rapid climate change situation. I weep for the islands and vulnerable areas of the world where their destiny is dependent on tourism.
Landing at the next island, we visited museums and galleries for artists, then we were driven by gated estates for the rich. Finally we entered the town, observing the poverty, seeing houses and facilities for locals, crowded buildings in drastic contrast to the first area of the island.
Traveling to other islands, we enjoyed swimming in the blue-green waves, but found ourselves listening to taxi drivers speaking of their colorless lives. We saw many possibilities for wind and solar energy and learned they use imported gas and oil. One island has no supply of drinking water and another is at sea level. We drove by the hurricane damage in St. Maarten, still there after almost two years. No matter what country was responsible for the island, the Netherlands, France, or Great Britain, they all seemed dominated by the US dollar and imported food and energy.
Reaching the Azores, where we had been previously, we knew they had geothermal energy, happy cows and a good agricultural base. We found that they now have more crops for export, and like all of the other islands, they have vulnerability to climate change.
It wouldn’t be easy to change what is happening across the Caribbean and other islands, because forces of the developed economies pressure poorer countries with loans and promise, tariffs and threats. These powers attempt to control how poorer countries use their land, not for their own benefit, but for corporate profits and cheap products for the rest of the world.
Should we not travel to these areas? Would reducing tourism be more harmful than hopeful? If we choose to travel, we can listen to local people, sharing our thoughts about renewable energy and growing local food for their own population. We need to understand that our lives may depend on supporting a local economy that is diversified and self-sustaining, one that can provide us with safe food and renewable energy as climate change begins to impinge on the survival, not just of islands, but of the planet. My cruise of contrasts was one of enjoying warm weather, beautiful beaches and swimming in crystal clear bays. It was also one of reflecting on the phrase we learned in the eighties—tourists destroy what they come to see. It also left me clearer about the danger of climate change to vulnerable islands, as well as to all of us in the developed world.