On Tourism and Sustainable Development

In early June, The Bahamas played host to a conference to discuss tourism and sustainable development.  Now I don’t mind telling you that I found that more than mildly ironic — if there’s one thing you can’t say about the current state of the Bahamian tourism industry, it’s that it’s sustainable.  The fact that the conference was held in the conference rooms of what was once the largest and splashiest hotel south of Atlantic City only increased the irony for me; I can remember the days when, as the Carnival Crystal Palace, the floors used to light up like a rainbow at night while we Bahamians lit candles in powercuts and fanned ourselves in front rooms hot as the infernal hinges.

You see, there’s a danger in being some of the oldest hands in the business.  We Bahamians are no strangers to tourism; we’ve been raised for generations to learn to keep the tourist in mind.  The problem about that is this:  it’s the people who have been successful for a long time who have the hardest time changing.

And the industry is changing right under our feet. Tourism is no longer considered the weak country’s last resort, the poor land’s friend.  It’s no longer regarded as the ultimate destroyer of national pride and self-worth, the creator of inequalities, the ruiner of environments and the spoiler of morals.  No; tourism is now the largest global industry, and every country on the planet is doing what we’ve been doing for the past two centuries:  inviting tourists home.

The Bahamian tourist industry is almost 200 years old, having had its roots shortly after the failure of the cotton plantations, when Nassau was touted as a health resort among British physicians.  When Adela Hart visited the city in 1823-1824, there were already houses on rent for visitors, select tours to be had, and rudimentary entertainment — she writes about her carriage trips out to the Blue Hills and the Pine Barrens, and talks about hearing Bahamians singing.  The first major hotel was built in 1860; and tourism first hit its stride in the 1920s, when Americans descended on Nassau, Bimini and West End in search of liquor and fun, and took off at the end of the 1940s.  We are old hands.  Generations of Bahamians have been raised to take part in the hospitality trade, and most of our development has come hand in hand with tourism.

But the trouble is, we’re no longer unique.  Where we once had an edge, selling sun, sand and sea in close proximity to the USA, the spread of easy global communications has turned that advantage into a liability.  When anyone can get anywhere, even the most remote location, by plane or helicopter or boat, when Hollywood TV crews can invade the secretest islands in the Pacific or the heart of the Central American rainforests to create a prime-time game show (think Survivor, people), there’s very little real appeal left in coming to Nassau, with its souvenirs made in China, its straw work made in Haiti and Jamaica (and China), and its T-shirts made — well, maybe in China, with a little red, gold, green and “Hey Mon” pressed onto them for Caribbean flavour.

These days, we — some of the oldest hands in the business, with a tourist industry that rivals only the tourist industries of the Mediterranean in longevity — must face the fact that the kind of tourism we practice here is passé, suitable only for the lowest classes of tourists: the excursion visitors, the cruise ship passengers, people with little money and less taste.  Our model isn’t working so well any more.  Though we welcome huge numbers to our shores, those numbers don’t translate into the kinds of profits in the hands of Bahamians as one might imagine.

So what have we done about it?

Well, we’ve tried to change our image.  Instead of being known only for casino packages and cruise ship dockings, we’ve created resorts that offer more; we’ve got the theme parks of Atlantis and the exclusivity of the Four Seasons as a result. And now, we’re targeting an even more upscale market.  Instead of just selling a few days on a beach and a few nights in a casino, we’re selling marinas and golf courses and second homes to the super-rich who desire luxury living in exclusive locations.

It’s been very successful indeed.  But it isn’t sustainable.

Sustainability, you see, has to do with the ability of a place or a people to support a certain activity over an extended period of time and under different circumstances.  The official definition, as presented by scholars and policy makers, is this: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  And if it’s one thing that our current approach to tourism is not, it’s sustainable.

It’s not sustainable because it doesn’t involve Bahamians at the foundation.  It depends primarily upon foreign investment, and trusts the investors to make sensible decisions about the impact of their developments on the Bahamian landscape and people.

It’s not sustainable because it doesn’t place the uniqueness of The Bahamas — our landscapes, our culture, our selves — at the centre of the deal.  Oh, it sells that uniqueness, rather the way that Madison Avenue sells the features of cars; but we don’t make that uniqueness central to the endeavour, so much so that it will be preserved.

And it’s not sustainable because it takes place more or less behind our backs.  We close our eyes at night, and open them the next morning with a new horizon before us.  We have no connection to the tourist product, and the tourist industry has no real connection to us.

And so the irony of the tourism conference last week.  But there’s a danger that goes further than any irony can.  Until we can look at the industry as it is, not as it was, and see that the people and the culture and the history of The Bahamas are as appealing to the new tourists as the sun and sand once were — and more,  that while sun and sea can be found elsewhere, we can’t — until we learn to respect ourselves and demand the same respect from the people we let in to do our tourism for us, the development that comes from our tourism may be phenomenal in the short term, but it will never be sustainable.