The opportunity to visit another country and to relax in a controlled idyllic environment is what, for most, makes a vacation so special. Understanding this is why the Caribbean has been able to grow its product so successfully over the years from one that was once only available to the very rich, so that today it is able to cater for almost every type of visitor seeking a sun, sea or cultural experience.
In doing so, the region, individual countries, hotels and the industry more generally have strived to create an environment for the visitor that is often distant from Caribbean reality. It is the nature of tourism and we all accept this, knowing too that it is no different from what the region’s global competitors are doing.
The industry today is structured around and promoted through selling and delivering dreams in ways that much of the grittiness of everyday life of a country is removed. The idea of ‘the traveller’ as someone who immerses themselves in whatever may come, has largely disappeared, been consigned to writers and explorers like Colin Thubron, and travel has been sanitised.
This is not unreasonable when a visitor works 50 weeks a year and wants to spend their hard earned dollars on relaxation or a chosen form of hedonism or culture. It is also good business for the host nation and the industry
However, in Europe in the last months a number of developments have brought visitors face-to-face with a very different form of reality in beautiful locations, raising questions about whether there are limits to the dreams and destinations the industry can sell.
So challenging has the contrast become, that it may trigger a new and fundamental debate about certain countries, and a greater awareness among visitors that in some, there is a vast gulf between reality and the image presented.
At its most extreme, visitors to popular resorts in Tunisia and tour operators are now being instructed by the British and Irish governments to leave the country immediately. This follows the deaths of 38 holidaymakers on a beach in Sousse in an appalling terrorist attack aimed at murdering visitors and damaging terminally that country’s tourism industry.
In a different way, the challenge can also be seen in Greece, where visitors to some Aegean Islands have quite literally come face-to-face on beaches and tavernas with men, women and children with nothing; coming ashore from small boats after having made a perilous crossing from North Africa to escape from wars in Syria, Libya and other countries.
To their credit, many visitors have joined local people to help transport, clothe and feed the refugees who have to make their way to often distant police stations in order to obtain the papers that will permit them to travel to Athens for registration as refugees. But others turn away in disgust that their holiday has been ruined; offended that reality does not match the dream that they believe they have purchased.
If one is hard headed, this may of course be to the benefit of destinations like the Caribbean, safe in the knowledge that visitors travelling to the region are able to enjoy a happy and peaceful vacation, well away from the world’s troubles; although noting this gives me no pleasure.
Whether the industry and its dream sellers like it or not, recent developments in Europe – and earlier tourist-related incidents in Kenya, Egypt and India – cannot help but raise issues about an industry that juxtaposes relative visitor wealth, different cultural and religious values and ways of life with the day-to-day reality of local life and now, conflict.
The tourism industry is not good at addressing moral dilemmas of this kind, and the suspicion is that most tour operators will abandon destinations where they feel that visitors will have a less than perfect experience.
For every individual we see suffering, the vast majority of us will reach out to help, yet objectively it is hard to argue that a vacation should not in some way seek to protect us from the real world.
There are no easy answers, but the region should be prepared for a debate.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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