Whither tourism? Wither tourism? Some thoughts on both

Last week, the Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organization caused a few ripples in local consciousness with his chosen words about tourism, that resonated more than a little with the Jamaican location where he was speaking. Quoting from the report made by the Jamaica Information Service, Mr. Taleb Rifai, said:

“We cannot continue to build five-star hotels in three-star communities. This is a very important message we have to keep in mind. We cannot let our visitors live in bubbles; this is not acceptable anymore,”

Several commentators have been somewhat put out by this remark.

My own thoughts were initially some puzzlement–of the ‘Yea, right!’ variety–not least because of the ironic nature of the comment, but also some bewilderment.

Let me deal with the irony, first.

If there’s one thing we know about so-called foreign dignitaries when they visit it’s that they are often made to ‘live in bubbles’. Now, the reasons for that can be many, but they often come down to what gives the best impression of a country and makes most people comfortable in terms of the safety and security of the visitors concerned. At the extreme, such visitors may well be ‘housed’ in the residence of the head of government, or their ambassador (if a national on national business). More normally, they will be found in the ‘finest’ hotels that the country can offer.

Such concerns about safety do not rest only with high-ranking persons, but also with the ordinary visitors, who unfamiliar with a country want to avoid putting him- or herself in harm’s way, unnecessarily. Many countries find ways to deal with this, or at least convince visitors that it is a trivial concern. At a basic level, foreign diplomatic representatives try to warn their citizens of local dangers. Without citing the USA as the model, we can see how the USA, being the source of the bulk of visitors to Jamaica), cautions nationals.

Here is the safety and security advice given by the US Embassy for Jamaica:

I wont judge that for accuracy or otherwise, but leave it merely to indicate how the USA sees the landscape into which its citizens will venture.

They offer some guidance on what is deemed ‘best practice’:

It’s noteworthy to me that the highest risks are flagged as being within all-inclusive resorts. So, if it’s so dangerous inside the ‘bubble’, are we to believe that it’s safer outside?

So, the visiting dignitaries tend to not stay anywhere but in the most-exclusive places, but also visitors are warned that to venture out into the general spaces of the country is riddled with horrors of crime and violence.

Now, we know that when people come to spend their time and money on leisure activities like visiting other countries, they do so with a little more of a cavalier attitude, putting many adverse things down to ‘the experience’ they may gain from foreign travel.

Horror stories come in many forms, and crime may stand as minor compared to some other things such as incomplete lodgings, unsanitary food and lodgings, or things like a lack of activities to make the stay enjoyable. For instance, no matter what one learns about Indian or Mexican culture and history, concerns often focus on ‘Delhi belly’ or Montezuma’s revenge’.

In the search for value for money, the ordinary foreign traveller comes in many shapes and sizes. Unlike the more rarified dignitary visitor. Moreover, the ordinary visitors has to look after him- or herself, not have needs met by hosts seeking to please at almost any cost.

The bewilderment part of my concerns were to think about what tourism has become. If we go back to Mr. Talai’s comment, I was struck by the ‘anymore’. Pardon me for parsing, but that suggests something was alright before. Now, change often does not happen overnight, and if the idea were to signal the need that the tourism industry as it’s manifested say in The Caribbean is in need of overhaul, then the comments make sense only if one puts some time frame of getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

My economist mind quickly went to the fact that nothing is costless, and to wonder what the new tourism may look like in its totality–visitor numbers, gross revenue, percent of revenues retained, domestic linkages, new transport investment, etc. I did not have an answer and I noticed that no one else seems to have put forward an answer that could suggest whether the new tourism would be as significant for Jamaica or less than it is now.

I was also bewildered because world tourism is not principally about small countries like Jamaica, but really about major industrial countries in North America, Europe and some of Asia/Australasia.

The UN WTO tell us that 2017 is on its way to a record year. The trend is showing continued demand for travel, after seven consecutive years of growth (unprecedented since the 1960s, according to WTO), projected at well over 1 billion travelers again in 2017.

But, little countries like Jamaica don’t determine world tourism trends, ie what that 1+ billion people want; we’re edging towards 4 million arrivals–that’s less than 1/2% of the world market. What we do is to try to attract as many of those visitors as we can reasonably support and get them to spend as much as possible. But, it’s the markets in North America and Europe that drive what many visitors will find acceptable. In other words, standards of luxury, attractions, mobility, safety, cuisine, and other things are really determined elsewhere, and you would be a rash country to think that by bucking those trends and tastes you will survive very long. Why? Because people can stay at home and get more for their bucks, euros and pounds.

Tourism represented about US$1.5 TRILLION in 2016; 10% of world GDP. But, note, growth in advanced economies (+5%) was more than double that of emerging countries (+2%).

While it’s nice to think about offering a wide and authentic local experience, it’s also fraught with many risks. It’s only a small fraction of visitors who are prepared to just head out and ‘live like locals’. At the best, they will be willing to sample local food and drink, especially if they have some recognition of them already; ie some penetration abroad helps. So, for instance, Jamaican jerk food has an appeal that would surpass other local delights such as cowskin soup, or even our national dish, ackee and saltfish (‘it’s looks like scrambled eggs’). They will also venture to local attractions if safety seems well assured; that assurance isn’t the same for all visitors.

Let’s not fool ourselves about racial perceptions, either, and how a mainly Caucasian set of visitors finds its comfort level in a mass of black or dark people.

But, part of skillful marketing of a destination is to find ways to get local things to be appealing to as wide a group as possible. That’s never ending. However, many visitors will happily default to things they know from home. Hence, the often-heard cries for ‘Where’s McDonalds?’ or ‘Where’s Starbucks?’, just as examples.

Jamaica does well in that it gets some 40+% of visitors repeating their travel to the island.

I wonder what inclusive tourism would look like in countries like Jamaica. Of course, it depends what you deem inclusion to mean–sectors involved, locations involved, people involved, range of countries from which visitors come, and more. Inclusion could also mean what the country can do with what it earns. That’s more than a bit ticklish, not least because most of the players in the business of attracting visitors are private enterprises, who may or may not put much of their revenue into the hands of national governments. Even if they put money into government hands, how much control do they, or could they exert over its use? So, the 30% of tourism revenue that gets retained is to be fought over, either getting more of it to benefit the nation, and/or raising that share to a higher level.

The world has changed much, and technology now allows many more people to participate in activities like tourism with little more capital investment than the home they already own. Ventures like AirBnB can now make many willing home owners into tourism destinations. Jamaica seems to be trying to get on this train. But, what does that look like or do to the overall market? While AirBnB may issue standards, do they stand up to scrutiny and/or match those offered, say, by hotel associations? Happy AirBnB customers, small in total, may not affect perceptions of the destination much, if the bulk of the market remains covered by formal hotels. Would the market be better if either government or a national tourism organization chose to oversee formally a sector such as AirBnB?

But, many Jamaicans, have done with tourism that they do with any revenue-generating activity in the island–latch onto it, most simply by ‘feeding’ on it as sellers of goods and services (call that ‘vending’). It’s style is often the well-tried, rough-and-tumble kind with shaky wooden structures and hoping that people with buy.

Tourism in small economies is often about managing the obvious tension between haves (foreign visitors) and have nots (locals). With few exceptions, such economies can neither match the average wealth of visitors nor do something more than (maybe not much) to manage to regular or season inflows of people that are many times the number of local residents. In such countries, it’s almost unheard of that hotels or lodgings aimed at foreign visitors will be open freely to locals. One doesn’t need to target ‘all-inclusive’ resorts as if they are essentially different from most accommodation for visitors. It can simply be a matter of how to manage people flows. In such economies catering for tourists is part of specialization.

Industrial countries can build tourism on the back of what they have already achieved. Extensive historical interests can be packaged to be more attractive. Medical facilities are generally of a higher standard so will attract business without being touted as a feature of a destination. Special transport isn’t needed because the basic infrastructure is well-developed. Climatic attractions are already part of local cultures, so things like skiing or boating or natural attractions have already a local base that is strong and can be made stronger by foreign visitors, as opposed to be being developed to attract foreign visitors.

I have some thoughts about the sustainability of tourism, which I may discuss separately, but as with inclusion, I know that sustainability can be defined in many different ways. So, while some may routinely think this means the environment, others may thinks it’s about financial viability, for instance. I’m always leery of discussing terms like this without being clear that I’m on the same page as others. I could easily say that a sector is sustainable if a decade from now it is still in the business of making revenue, providing jobs and demanding goods and services from within the country. That goes for any sector, not just something called ‘tourism’.

Myths and reality: waiting to retire to play golf

I spend a lot of time trying to explain to people that they have views that are contrary to facts. In the current world of the US administration, it’s timely, perhaps, to state that facts matter. One area where I bridle is when people say things like ‘I want to be like you when I retire, and can have time to play golf.’ I point out that, if one waits until retirement, it will be far too late. So, let me state this as clearly as I can, and if I’m not clear enough just look at the data for yourself.

Most golfers (based on US data)–nearly 60 percent–are people in the prime of their working lives (i.e. >30 and under 60/65); just under 40 percent are in the category that covers most ages when people are eligible for retirement (>60 years old). The demographics suggest that, if the bulk of golfers continue, many will have played golf through their working lives into the period when they are likely to be no longer working.

Most golfers are men, married, well-educated, likely to be professionals, and higher-income earners and have high net worth. So, golf tends to be for those who are financially better off in society. Earlier in my life it was accepting that notion that kept me away from the sport: I did not fit the profile 🙂

Anecdotally, in Jamaica, most amateur golfers work in the private sector and are in their own businesses. Few are civil servants. A small handful are doctors. Tourists (mainly from North America) whom I have met in Jamaica who are playing golf fit fully into this profile. I’ve not played much in Europe, but my limited exposure to golfers there gave me the same impression.

These sets of attributes cements golf as a sport for those who have more disposable income. 

What’s often clear, to golfers, at least, is that playing a full round of golf may take time (say 3-5 hours), but that is something that those who are in control of their time can manage better. So, when someone reaches retirement, such control over time is more evident, but it’s clear that to have had the chance to play much golf before retirement: golfers needed to be able to play when (and where) they wanted to. More likely, the typical golfer is a business person who can decide when he plays. Classic examples are the executive or business owner who toggles golf with business activities (and networking may be part of that). I have a friend whose boss is a golf fanatic and he tells her to pack her clubs whenever they have to travel for business; he (and her) play golf as soon as as often as he can on the trips and make trips as often as he can. Anecdotally, golf courses in Jamaica have many local golfers playing regularly on a couple of midweek afternoons (after 1pm)  and at weekends. The vast majority of these golfers are not retired, but still at work. 

So, seeing golf as a sport for retired people is a myth. Next time you see me and wish that you could be retired like me to get your golf game on, accept that you keep missing the bus. Get started on your golf game well before you retire!

To have and to have not

A letter in one of the papers this week brought me up short. It complained about the cost of electricity making the writer afraid to put up Christmas lights. Contrast that to the report of an Australian family that strung up over 500,000 lights on their suburban home, Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 2.56.59 PMto reclaim their Guiness world record.

That same evening, I went to an uptown plaza and was interested to see the area decorated with Christmas lights. Where I live also had lights up at the entrance and along the pathway. Our house has lights up; outside and around the tree which my wife collected and decorated last weekend. So, too, do most of the neighbouring houses. If I take the letter as a gauge, we are not afraid of what our electricity bills would be after Christmas, or if we were, could somehow deal with them. Only last year did we put up a Christmas tree for the first time, so our youngest child can’t really say that she’s used to seeing it up. But, she’d be in shock if we said we did not think we could decorate it with lights because of the cost. We’ve driven around some of the neighbourhoods in recent evenings and seen many houses strewn with lights–not all, but many. Again, fear has not eaten into their owners’ desire to celebrate brightly. Clearly, we are the haves.


I try always to never forget where I came from in Jamaica. We were not people who were dirt poor, but life was simple and pleasant for that. Both of my parents came from big families in two of Jamaica’s big food providers–St. Elizabeth and St. Mary. Whatever else was happening, food, especially fruit and vegetables, was always available. Even though, I remember having to wait to eat until after the ‘big people’. As my parents established themselves in Jamaica and then England, we did not have to think often about lives of not having. Now, I see in Jamaica every day, many of the not haves. The country is full of hands outstretched to get a few coins, as the man did the other day as I drove past Devon House and he looked at my little stash of coins ready for making change.

We are often reminded of the meaning of the spirit of Christmas. I really hadn’t given much thought to what it meant to have lights on a tree–partly, because I never focused much on needing to have that. But, for those who try at this time of year to see the world as a better place, it’s the sort of image that puts a large distance between some who have and the many who have not.

Tear down this wall?

One intriguing aspect of the informality that characterizes Jamaican economic and social life is housing. If you’ve visited the island and not noticed the galvanized zinc/corrugated iron surroundings for some communities, and the plyboard sidings for many homes, which mark shanty towns, then you were asleep or not paying attention. If you’ve missed them, then drive near some of the gullies on lower ground in Kingston, or alongside rivers around the island.

“I would tear them down,” I heard someone utter last night as we approached Kingston from the west, along Washington Boulevard. “Then what would you do?” I asked. Unsightly, they may be, but important they are, too. They display very clearly some of the strains put on a nation as it develops. Poor people looking for work and new opportunities far outstripping available housing. With a large enough housing stock, one could see more rooms to let absorbing most of the newcomers, if they were able to afford rents. When Caribbean migrants went to the UK, USA, and Canada, after the mid-1940s, that’s what many found, and they did not need to make shanty towns. They often lived in substandard and overcrowded conditions, at least, initially.

Shanty dwellings or similar are not new, historically or geographically, especially as urban areas developed and people left the land to find work in larger towns and cities.

Estimates put squatter populations at about 1 billion, worldwide, about 1/6 of world total. Other estimates put the number of squatters in Jamaica at about 1 million, about a third of the total population. Poor services, limited amenities, high-density living, drugs, crime, diseases–all are part of daily squatter life.

Those squatters, despite their parlous and shambolic housing, often mean votes. They certainly do in Jamaica. Who’d want to dislodge voters from their homes? Keeping people in such circumstances, however, keeps the embers burning under a possible tinderbox, so, periodic social explosions should not come as a surprise. These communities can also be the source of many vibrant and creative social elements, as people claw and scrape to rise from the slums.

Last year, sociologist Peter Espuit wrote an article about Jamaica’s housing challenges. It explained much of the social and economic origin of the migration from rural areas to urban ones, especially Kingston. He also focused on the inequalities to which housing added. Importantly, he looked at the political significance of squatter and low-income communities in the tribal cauldron of Jamaican politics.

Maybe, if you have no constituents or no national links then you can talk glibly about tearing down the zinc. I don’t see any spanking new housing sprouting up to take any of the shanty dwellers. Clearing the areas without any provision for the new homeless is tantamount to insanity.

Perhaps, it was propitious that today’s Daily Observer included an article about Digicel’s role in revitalizing downtown Kingston. By bringing business activity back into the long-rundown waterfront area, hopes have been raised. Digicel added to life by investing in rehabilitating Coronation Market. Interesting, revitalizing housing downtown doesn’t get much mention. Poor people adjacent to budding business areas often sit awkwardly. Think about the City of London or Wall Street.

However, for life to be brought back into downtown housing, which now has swathes of slum housing in what were once good housing areas, one would need something like gentrification to occur. Is that likely? This phenomenon, common in developed countries, has featured little in developing nations, including the Caribbean. Developing countries have focused more on new housing rather than rehabilitation of existing housing.20130825-141804.jpgJamaica may not have a substantial enough cohort of identified gentrification types for that to be a realistic trend, near-term–affluent singles or childless couples, homosexuals, and artists or ‘Bohemian’ types.

Enough Jamaicans know what it is to live in poor housing, or to have limited services. I know many who drive past the shanty dwellings and think back to either childhood days or life in deep rural communities, if not their own, then for someone close. Go, ahead! Think about tearing them down.

Well, my dear…

Jamaica is not a developed or industrial country. It is developing and is classified by the World Bank as ‘upper middle-income’. Many of its people live in rural areas and live off the land or sea. I remember a Jamaican colleague at the IMF, who once went on a mission to one of the then-former USSR countries, Tajikistan (low-income, according to the World Bank). By comparison with Russia or the Baltic countries, this country lagged badly in terms of its development. He had been shocked by what he’d seen of the standard of living and lifestyle. “That is the third world!” he had said. What he had tried to stress was that, despite the economic problems Jamaica had, it was really quite well off, or “We don’t have it that bad”, especially when you add the beauty of the country, its food and warm climate all year round. Of course, Jamaica has people whose lives are marked by grinding poverty, many of whom may feel that their chances of escaping that are slim. Jamaica has its well-off people, too, who can look ahead in their lives with an optimism that is not likely to be evident among the very poor or even amongst those many who don’t see themselves as poor but also have no claims to be financially well-off.

A series of jokes are going around, which are termedfirst-world-problems ‘White Whine’, and are meant to depict the kind of frustrations and complaints that are experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. They are typically used as tongue-in-cheek comedic devices to make light of trivial inconveniences. While people in dire need have problems with the basic elements of life, such as access to food, safe drinking water, and basic health care, the privileged have these things well covered, and more. However, they have become so comfortable that their ‘problems’ are often seen as really mere inconveniences, such as the inability to find the desired colour paint to use in a new child’s room or which handbag makes the better accessory for an evening dress.flooded_0

For sure, there are many people in Jamaica who are very well-off. They need not have come from privileged backgrounds and often have the benefit of a high level of education, from the very good schools here or from studying abroad. They tend to be comfortable, financially. Many of them will live in the suburbs of Kingston, which have formed on the high hills near the city, in the parish of St. Andrew, but they are also evident in many other parishes in the country.

You don’t have to visit Jamaica for long to realise that it also has its variant of ‘white whine’–I can’t think of another term that better fits the physionomy of Jamaica. It’s associated with the significant number of people living in Kingston and elsewhere on the island who enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle. Let’s not get into how that was achieved or how it is sustained, and what kind of work gets good pay. Suffice to say, they can live life much as they would want to.

I remember being surprised when I visited Jamaica in the 1970s and I saw some of the houses that better-off people had as homes. I was astonished, having rarely seen any such homes in the better-off neighbourhoods in England. I was taken further aback because most people had more than one car and domestic help–‘helpers’, Jamaicans say–whether living-in or day workers. Kingston often reminds me of a South African city, where you see household workers (say, maids, child-minders, and yard workers) heading up to the better-off neighbourhoods in the morning and leaving there in the evenings. In South Africa, those workers are black and headed to homes with (mainly) white residents. In Jamaica, the workers are also black, but the residents are also (mainly) black (and I’m not going to get into the shades of skin issue here). Domestic work is big business in Jamaica: the Jamaica Household Workers Union was formed in May this year, to cover the approximately 58,000 workers across the island.

Many of those who could, migrated to the hills around Kingston in a bid to escape the influx of low-income earners into what were once middle to upper middle-class communities. The ‘good life’ that happens in these upscale neighbourhoods–newer and more cars per household, fine dining, better schools, bigger homes, less violent crime, better amenities, etc.–is in marked contrast to the life that is commonplace in the low-income areas on Kingston’s inner city or in its deep rural areas. The gap in lifestyles and perceived concerns is exemplifed in a satirical video about so-called ‘Upper St. Andrew’s women‘. Its essential point is that what passes for problems in these well-heeled areas, the Jamaican equivalent of ‘white whine’, is alive and well.

It’s part of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ that exists in many countries. It’s part of what ‘making it’ means in the modern world. Why should Jamaica be different? Is it in keeping with the national motto, “Out of many, one people”? Many who are now in the better-off ‘us’ have clear and strong roots in the worse-off ‘them’. Do people have good opportunities to move from one state to another? Yes. Could they be better? Yes. When reporters and news cameras descend on areas plagued by violent crimes or when gullies flood and wash away whatever personal possessions people had, do those in the hills breathe huge sighs of relief that these are rarities where they live? Probably. Do values get skewed as our situations improve? Often.

Having seen and lived in countries that would evoke more comments and looks of disbelief at how dire conditions can be, I would be worried if Jamaica was like that and had not managed to create reachable aspirations for its citizens. How to help more people to attain those aspirations? Not one simple answer.