The Sun Worshippers: a history of Caribbean tourism

Jeremy Taylor looks at the history of tourism in the Caribbean

Bequia boats. Photograph by Mark MeredithDivers’ paradise, Aruba. Photograph by Aruba Tourist BoardShopping for fresh fruit in St. Marteen. Photograph by St. Marteen Tourist BoardWedding at Windjammer Landing, St. Lucia. Photograph by Chris Huxley

Looking back at it, you might say that Caribbean tourism was invented about a hundred years ago by a ship’s captain from Massachusetts.

His name was Lorenzo Baker, and he owned the United Fruit Company, which was in the business of shipping bananas from the north coast of Jamaica to the eastern seaboard of the United States. Baker hit on the idea of filling his empty southbound ships with American tourists, giving them five days at sea followed by a hotel holiday in Port Antonio.

He also hit on the idea of constructing his own Jamaican hotel, the Titchfield, which grew to 150 rooms, an enormous capacity for the 1890s. There, imported American food and imported American staff tended the American visitors shipped in on Baker’s American vessels.

It was a brilliant scheme. As the English writer Polly Pattullo remarked in her sceptical study of Caribbean tourism Last Resorts (Ian Randle Publishers/Latin America Bureau 1996): “In contemporary economic parlance, Captain Baker had achieved ‘vertical integration’, controlling the two essential planks of the tourist industry — travel and accommodation.”

A century later, the Baker Model is very well entrenched in the Caribbean. In fact, on the busy Caribbean tourism conference circuit, the great whispered question is: who gets to play Captain Baker? In some islands, barely 10 percent of hotel rooms are owned by Caribbean people. Most airline seats into the Caribbean are provided by North American and European carriers. The airlines, tour operators, travel agents, hotel chains and cruise lines which control most of the Caribbean’s business — the real Captain Bakers of our day — are not Caribbean companies.

And the business is big. The Caribbean has long been one of the world’s top tourist areas; tourism is its biggest earner, accounting for a third of its total output, a quarter of all its jobs, 45% of its export earnings, and more than 75% of all its incoming investment. Visitors spend $28 billion a year in the Caribbean, earning regional governments $7 billion a year in tax revenues. Tourism is going to create 800,000 new jobs across the region in the next 12 years. No other part of the world is as tourism-intensive as the Caribbean.

And even though some islands may seem to be near capacity, growth is accelerating still. Five years ago, the number of Caribbean visitors passed the 22 million mark, 8.9 million of them on cruise ships, the rest enjoying vacations on land. Within 20 years or so, that figure is likely to be at 40 million or more, perhaps a third of them cruise ship passengers on mobile mega-resorts. Every island in the Caribbean is competing for visitors: some, like Barbados and Antigua, have depended on their visitors for decades, but even Fidel Castro’s Cuba, bending all the revolutionary rules, is out in the marketplace enticing adventurous capitalists to its historic sites and magnificent beaches.

Exactly how much of the tourism revenue stays in the Caribbean is a matter of some mystery. But nobody doubts its importance — nowhere in the world is more dependent on tourism than the Caribbean. “By and large, tourism pays the bills in this area,” said Jean Holder, Secretary-General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization in Barbados. “The economic survival of the Caribbean, at least in the short term, would seem to depend on a sustainable tourism industry.”

Not that Captain Baker had invented a new industry — far from it.

By the time the Titchfield opened in Port Antonio, there had been tourists of a sort in the Caribbean for more than a century and a half. In 1751-2, Major George Washington, soon to be almost as big a name in America as Monica Lewinsky is now, escorted his sick brother to Barbados for a rest and a cure (you can visit the house in Bridgetown where they supposedly stayed).

He was an adventurous traveller. Most well-to-do Americans were content with the nearer islands of The Bahamas (where the Royal Victorian Hotel opened in 1861): by 1873, The Bahamas had all of 500 arrivals a year from the United States. But Washington was on a medical quest, and Barbados already had a good reputation; one of its earliest hotels, Crane Beach, which opened in 1887 on the lovely windswept Atlantic coast, would trade on bracing, health-giving sea-air.

In Washington’s day, though, even medical tourism was in its infancy. A tropical climate was still thought to be unhealthy and dangerous, conducive to disease and fever. Soldiers in Britain’s tropical colonies, trussed up in heavy military uniforms and drinking themselves stupid in the hot sun, were careless about matters like clean water, sanitation and waste disposal; they caught malaria, not from mosquitoes, but from “bad air”, the noxious atmosphere and deadly miasmas of the tropical coast. In Jamaica, the military mortality rate was well over one in five, even in the early 19th century. Hardly anyone saw beauty or well-being in the tropical sea and its beaches: the idea was to escape into the purer air of the hills. It was a perception that took a long time to change.

Other changes were needed to build the foundations of today’s mass tourism. One of them was the radical idea that travel could be undertaken for pleasure and interest, rather than simply to get from one place to another. The “Grand Tour” of western Europe had been part of an aristocratic British gentleman’s education since medieval times. But nobody else went travelling unless they had to. What for?

The 19th century turned all that upside down. The first steamer across the English Channel to France sailed in 1815, a few months after the Battle of Waterloo; when regular sailings began in the 1820s, a steady stream of British travellers started exploring Europe. Businessmen saw the possibilities; Thomas Cook organised his first package tour in 1841 (a train excursion from Leicester to Loughborough in England, costing a shilling a head). He offered package holidays to Europe from 1862, and across the Atlantic to America from 1866; round-the-world trips were on offer by 1872, and soon Cook was sending intrepid customers to India and the Far East. Other operators followed suit.

In America, travel for pleasure had been regarded as a sinful indulgence at the start of the century. But by the 1820s there was clearly profit in it, and American entrepreneurs started taking visitors to the Catskills by steamboat and stagecoach. By the end of the century 100,000 Americans were travelling overseas every year. Henry Flagler opened his east coast railroad into Florida in the 1890s, launched out into hotel development, and attracted American visitors to the sunny south. The Caribbean was the obvious next stop.

The first serious destinations in the Caribbean were the closest to the mainland: Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, The Bahamas, Bermuda. Their customers were wealthy, upper-class Caucasians in search of new and exotic amusements, pursuing health and pleasure in their island playgrounds. The high life of Havana, package holidays to the Isle of Pines and Varadero, the exoticism of Haiti, the beauty of Jamaica — all these were early marketing successes. Cuba was a favourite playground — by 1895 one American tour operator alone was taking 20,000 Americans to Havana each winter.

Where once it had been suspect for its tropical vapours and miasmal mists, the Caribbean was now extolled for its hills and clean air, its natural springs and mineral baths, its warm winters. When the Elder Dempster Line began sailing fortnightly from Bristol to Jamaica, its promotional posters explained that the “warm, healthy climate” of “The New Riviera” was widely recognised by doctors, and that pulmonary patients who went there early enough “almost invariably obtain relief”.

A well-publicised international exhibition in 1891 spurred Jamaica’s embryo hotel development. After the first English cricket tour to the Caribbean in 1895, the manager reported that the real danger was not the sun or the mosquitoes, but excessive Caribbean hospitality. By 1910 Jamaica had a Tourist Association, and by 1914 it had opened offices in Britain and Canada. Caribbean tourism was well under way.

Another radical change was the way people thought about the sun.

By the middle of the 18th century, Britons and Americans had figured out that sea water and sea bathing might even be healthy; but for many decades more, they still shrunk from the sun. Strong sunlight was dangerous to the health, not to mention the character. If respectable gentlemen and ladies ventured onto the beach, they emerged from separate bathing cabins covered from neck to knees; exposure of the person to public gaze or to the evil rays of the sun was physically and morally hazardous.

To put it bluntly, a pale skin was beautiful, and a sun-darkened skin was not; to go swanning off to the Caribbean islands to lie in the tropical sun was unthinkable. “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” sang Noël Coward somewhat later, mocking the perspiring English colonial officers who stood stoical in the tropical sunshine with their stiff upper lips and their sun-helmets.

But after World War 1, the sun began to lose its threat, and doctors began to sing its praises. An English osteopath sunbathed for several weeks in the Caribbean and reported that he was left “in a state of wonderful health, strength and rejuvenation.” Jamaica’s Gleaner newspaper reported in 1925 that heliotherapy was going to become “one of the greatest therapeutic agents of the future”. Businessmen began promoting sun holidays and even nude sunbathing.

In 1925, that ever-dangerous novelist and prophet of liberation D. H. Lawrence wrote a story about a tired, pale, city woman being seduced by the Italian sun as if by a lover, acquiring freedom, rejuvenation and a tan all at once. “She slid off all her clothes, and lay naked in the sun . . . She could feel the sun penetrating into her bones . . . The dark tensions of her emotion began to give way, the cold dark clots of her thoughts began to dissolve. She was beginning to be warm right through . . . Her weary, chilled heart was melting . . . her body was rosy, rosy and turning to gold. She was like another person. She was another person.”

This was not Lawrence’s later heroine Lady Chatterley, scandalising England by seeking release with her gamekeeper in the woods. This was ordinary workslave Juliet from New York, rediscovering the power of an ancient god. This was Everywoman, in love with the sun. Today’s sun-worshippers, strewn on every resort beach of the Caribbean, might recoil from Lawrence’s ripe prose, but would surely recognise his point.

So pale skin lost its glamour, and bronzed skin became attractive, healthy and desirable, a sign of vitality and strength; weary hearts began to dream of warming and reviving in the sun. The way was clear for decades of sun-lust. And where better to pursue the sun than in the Caribbean, whose islands were so easily accessible to Americans and so congenial for the British, who owned so many of them?

The next key change was technological, and made it easier to reach the sun when you wanted to, even during the snow-blown frost-bitten winters of the north.

In 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, Pan American Airways was formed. It flew from Key West to Cuba; Lindbergh joined the young airline and helped to pioneer Caribbean air travel.

By September 1929, Pan Am was operating a mail service across the region as far as Trinidad and British Guiana, using Sikorsky S38-B flying boats. Pan Am’s founder Juan Terry Trippe arrived on the first flight, which Lindbergh himself piloted. Four months later, Pan Am introduced passenger service, and soon you could take a Pan Am flying boat to Kingston (six hours from Miami), Panama or Trinidad. By 1936 there was an express service to the Caribbean from New York — it took 22 hours to reach Trinidad.

International travel no longer meant days or weeks in trains and boats, however opulent they might be. Travellers could take to the air and be at their destination in hours. The Caribbean was open to middle-class visitors as never before.

Most of the world’s major carriers followed Pan Am into the Caribbean, led by KLM (then Royal Dutch Airlines) in 1938. BWIA, the Caribbean’s own pioneering carrier, was formed by Lowell Yerex, a New Zealander who had already pioneered air services in Central America, and started its inter-island services at the end of 1940.

The airlines had built a sophisticated network of services across the region by the late 1940s, and competed to sell Caribbean playgrounds to buyers back home. Pan Am, Eastern, Delta, National Airlines and Trans-Caribbean Airways were among the carriers flying into the Caribbean from New York, Miami and Key West. Air Canada took 14 hours from Toronto; from Britain, Stratocruisers droned across the sky via Gander and New York. It was a comfortable way to travel: the Pan Am and Imperial Airways flying boats had two decks, dining rooms, gourmet menus, bunks and private cabins. For years after that, some of the transatlantic routes involved comfortable overnight hotel stops.

The Caribbean hustled to construct runways and airports, especially as it became embroiled in World War II. Trinidad, whose Piarco airport had opened in 1931, became a vast allied air base. Jamaica’s Palisadoes airport opened in 1941; Montego Bay’s airstrip, also laid down during the war, dictated the direction of Jamaica’s north coast development, forcing Port Antonio to give way to its better-equipped rival along the coast.

The islands then had to secure their share of visitors and build attractive hotels for them. They founded tourist boards and hotel associations. They offered tax and duty incentives for hotel construction. Jamaica’s provisions, dating from 1944, triggered the development of Montego Bay’s hotels; Barbados gave incentives to anyone building a hotel of 10 rooms or more, and started a boom which set the course of the island’s economic development. Hotel chains raced to build accommodation for the passengers flowing out of Caribbean airports: Pan Am’s founder Juan Trippe, following Captain Baker’s good example, was one of the earliest players, establishing the Inter-Continental group in 1945.

When the first jet aircraft appeared in 1958, flight times were cut by 40% or more, seat capacity soon doubled, and carriers started offering cheap economy fares. People used to taking holidays at home started thinking of exotic Caribbean trips. Gradually, since the 1930s, workers had for the first time acquired paid holidays and enough time off to think of long-distance travel. It was only a short step to long-haul charters and package tours, wide-bodied jets (Boeing’s massive 747 appeared in 1970), and the US deregulation of 1978 which gave the American airlines freedom to set their own routes and fares.

And there was Fidel Castro.

Like it or not, Caribbean tourism owes a great debt to Fidel. In 1959, his revolution in Cuba wiped out Havana’s glitzy casinos and high life, and closed the doors to visitors. Cuba’s pleasure-seeking clientele dispersed to other islands across the Caribbean. The doors remained closed for most of the next three decades to all except the most adventurous travellers, and remain so today to its traditional market in the United States. The idea of Cuba “opening up” again excites airlines and tour operators — Cuba has about 26,000 visitor rooms, more than anyone else except the Dominican Republic — but Caribbean tourism planners shudder at the thought of a newly capitalist Cuba sucking away all their business as tourists flock back to its mountains and beaches and historic cities.

The basic Caribbean “product” has served the region well for generations. Blue water, sparkling sand, arching palms. The sun on your back, the salt sea, warm and clear. The soft and humid air, the hot white sand under your feet, the wind crackling the palm branches. Escape from the dreadness of duty and routine and stress into another life of ease and comfort.

These days, Caribbean tourism offers much more than the traditional temptations: adventure holidays, mountain hikes, watersports, eco-exploits, health spas, sports of all sorts, historic sites, wedding packages and honeymoon specials, romantic hideaways for couples only, well-defended all-inclusives, wildlife and wild life, Carnivals and festivals, cultural diversity, people who know how to live life. Some islands have been falling over themselves to generate the “product” that the pundits say the “market” wants; others are convinced that if they stick to their own agenda, the “market” will adapt to it. Some are struggling to control the way the industry develops (“sustainable tourism” is the buzz-phrase); others roll out the red carpet for any investor with a few millions to spend, once the terms and conditions are right of course.

The Baker Model suggests that the real financial rewards in tourism flow back to whoever owns the transport and the accommodation, and can link them together (and preferably control the frills as well). After a century of experience, large areas of the Caribbean still have to figure out how to do this. The spirit of Lorenzo Baker still strides with a proprietorial air through the Caribbean’s biggest industry. ν

THE VALUE OF TOURISM

In the Caribbean, the tourism and travel business accounts for:

  • 25% of regional jobs
  • 25% of regional GDP
  • 75% of regional capital investment

UP AND COMING

By the year 2020, the World Tourism Organisation predicts that the world’s top four destinations will be:

  • China
  • United States
  • France
  • Spain

WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?

In 1995, the United States was the Caribbean’s best market. But its third best market was — Caribbean people.

  • United States 52%
  • Europe 17%
  • Caribbean 9%
  • Canada 6%

WORLD TOURISM

  • Employment 262 million (10.6% of global workforce)
  • Gross output $3.8 trillion; 2010 est.: $7.1 trillion
  • % of world GDP 10.7; est. 15% in 2025
  • Visitor arrivals 25 million (1950), 593 million (1996), 1.6 billion (2011 est.)

MARKETING BUDGETS

  • Caribbean Regional Marketing Programme $1.5 million
  • Florida $40 million
  • Hawaii $60 million
  • Canada $130 million

CARIBBEAN HOTEL ASSOCIATION

  • Founded 1962
  • Headquarters: Puerto Rico (with office in Miami)
  • Leadership: Ed Malone (President), John Bell (Executive Vice President)
  • Membership: 35 hotel associations, 1,135 hotels, 687 allied members (March 1997)
  • Main annual events: Marketplace, Tourism and Hotel Investment Conference, Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference, Small Hotels Retreat
  • Publications: CHA Handbook, Membership Directory, Hotel Construction and Modernization Report, Gold Book, CHAdvance (faxed newsletter)
  • Annual turnover: nearly $4 million
  • Subsidiaries: Caribbean Culinary Federation, Caribbean Hospitality Training Institute, CHA Foundation, CHA Properties, Caribbean Action for Sustainable Tourism
  • Programmes include: CHARMS (reservations system), A Taste of the Caribbean (annual culinary competition), regional marketing with Caribbean Coalition for Tourism

CARIBBEAN TOURISM ORGANISATION

  • Founded 1989
  • Headquarters: Barbados, with offices in London, Toronto and New York
  • Leadership: Jean Holder (Secretary-General)
  • Membership:32 governments, 22 private sector organisations; Chapter network
  • Annual events include: Conference on Sustainable Tourism, Caribbean Tourism Conference, Caribbean Tourism Investment Conference, Travel Trade Exhibitions
  • Publications: Tourism Monitor (monthly), The Fax (monthly), Caribbean Tourism Statistical Report, industry studies
  • Programmes include: research, information, training, marketing, planning, consultancy