On Culture, CARIFESTA, and the Bahamian Economy, Part I

It came to my attention last month that our government was planning to postpone, once again, the hosting of the Caribbean Festival of Arts, if it had not yet done so. Announcements to that effect would be made very soon, I was told. The fact that such announcements have not yet been made may make this post obsolete. I rather doubt it, however.It should be no surprise to anyone at all that I think this is a terrible idea. It's not just because I would like to write for a living and make that living in the country in which I grew up. It's also because it's flying in the face of what international agencies focussed on development economics suggest is the place of culture in that development.For those of us who don't know, or who haven't noticed, the world has changed. As I write, indeed, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, the US President is opening the door for negotiations with Cuba, which, as we all know, is the only viable competitor for The Bahamas' prosperity in the Caribbean region. In fact, it's possible to argue that the only reason The Bahamas has maintained its supreme position in the region has been because the fifty-year long US embargo of Cuba, has coincided with the latest Bahamian boom. But now, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is visiting Cuba, and the Obama administration is making very clear noises that the embargo will soon be lifted.At the same time, for the first time in almost twenty years, the Bahamian government's plan for prosperity -- foreign investment, foreign investment, foreign investment -- is not bearing fruit. Why not? The reasons are various. Perhaps the biggest is the reason Barack Obama himself gave for changing the way the USA has done business for the past generation or so -- that trickle-down economics, or the spreading of the wealth accumulated by the rich and mighty -- does not work. It no longer works in the USA, which is the greatest nation in the world; and it has not worked in The Bahamas as an engine of development for a country that has not yet invested in itself.  Oh, it has done well in providing a couple of decades' worth of get-rich-quick money for a smattering of people. But as we are noticing, where the sharing of wealth is dependent on the goodwill of the greedy, little gets shared. And so our current "wealth" is almost wholly dependent on the goodwill of the foreign investor, who is interested in the people of this nation only as workers -- as block-layers, lifeguards, toilet-cleaners, cooks, drivers, or middle managers who have no ability to affect or shape company policy.It is not foreign investment that economists and development agencies are suggesting is the engine of economic development in the 21st century; it's culture. If you don't believe me, go and look it up. Culture is no longer regarded as peripheral to development. It has been recognized as a viable, resilient, sustainable and renewable source of economic gain. A quick look at any international economic arrangement negotiated since 2002 will illustrate this truth. International agencies everywhere, from the European Union to the Organization of American States to the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, are recognizing the place of culture on the economic agenda.But here, in The Bahamas, for a generation and a half -- the entire time since Independence -- our national policies have been shaped by a group of men and a handful of women whose actions and behaviour cumulatively suggest that they would rather erase Bahamian culture than invest in it.Despite our so-called prosperity, we are the only Caribbean nation that cannot demonstrate our government's pride in what makes us us. Part of this is because Government policy since 1992 has focussed on conning foreign investors to put in infrastructure that (we are told) the government cannot afford. The result? Despite soaring tourist arrivals (and, presumably, soaring demand for authentic Bahamian cultural products), the cultural industries are in effective decline. Those foreign investors in whom we've placed our trust? They don't care whose culture visitors consume, as long as the profits flow to into their coffers.  What we should have learned by now is that no people -- or their representatives -- can depend on someone else to develop their own cultural resources. We have to do that job for ourselves.But we don't. The recurrent budget allotted by our goverment to culture, despite all the fussing about a so-called Ministry of Culture and the appointment of Ministers of State, only crossed the $2 million line in the 2008-2009 budget year. The government agency charged with the development of Bahamian culture is not a Ministry, nor is it a Department; it is a Division, which means that even that $2 million is not administered by anybody in that Division. (It isn't administered by the Minister, either, for anyone who remains fooled into thinking that this may be so.)  The Chief Financial Officer in any government agency is the Permanent Secretary, or the Director of any Department that has a budget head; and the Cultural Affairs Division is so far away from having a budget head that it would be laughable if it were not so frightening. That $2 million is inscribed in a single line item under whatever budget head the Division is attached to (Office of the Prime Minister (Head 14) one year, Education (Head 38) the next, Youth, Sports and Culture (Head 47) the next). And that $2 million is expected to support festivals throughout The Bahamas, maintain a "national theatre" (which is so far from being either thing that it demonstrates the depth of the contempt that our governments have for us) run a National Arts Festival, finance sundry cultural events throughout the year, and run the $1.5 million festival of Junkanoo.Stand this up against the over $91 million we allot to the Ministry of Tourism, much of which is spent outside The Bahamas. I was once told, laughingly, by a senior official in that Ministry that the budget I was given to work with (that was back in 2004, when the budget was maybe $1.2 million, give or take) was what Tourism managers were given to make mistakes with. We can afford Miss Universe, which will benefit Atlantis; but we cannot, it appears, afford CARIFESTA, which will benefit us all.But it is not Miss Universe, which is a cultural brand developed elsewhere, with economic returns for the owners of the brand that will develop the Bahamian economy.According to international agencies and economists the world around, it is our culture.This is why the planned postponement of CARIFESTA, if it is indeed so planned (and if it isn't, the lack of any progress towards the hosting of that festival in 2010 indicates that a decision has already been made, if not announced), is the terrible idea that it is.I have yet to be convinced that Miss Universe will benefit the Bahamian economy substantially, other than in the collection of departure taxes, which will be funnelled into agencies that spend their monies outside the nation anyway. I am sure it will keep the Kerzners happy. I know, however, that I and mine will certainly not benefit in any way from Miss Universe; nor, I imagine, will most other people in the cultural industries, unless their name be Ronnie Butler or K.B. and unless they be set to open for whatever international giant that comes to perform. I do not think that food vendors or writers or poets or improv performers or even the broad Junkanoo community will benefit in any substantial way from Miss Universe, not to mention the car rental agencies, the restaurants and watering holes on the Bahamian side of the bridge, the small hotels and guest houses, the vast majority of taxi drivers and the tour bus companies not sanctioned by Atlantis, the street cleaners, the road-repairers, the marching bands, the graphic designers, the t-shirt makers, or the film community.These are the people who will benefit from CARIFESTA, however, which is unsuited to be housed at Atlantis, that most inauthentic institution, that theme park for the unsuspecting, which only resides among us, but is not of us.  The influx of visitors, and the type of visitors that will make up that influx, will be interested in us, who we are, what we do, and will spend money on what is most Bahamian, will not be conned into overspending on what is fictional at best.And yet (I'm told) our leaders believe that to host the Festival will be a waste of money in the end.I know this much. Economic evidence from around the world exists which proves our leaders wrong. And common sense suggests it too. Our development will not happen at the hands of foreigners; it is in our own hands, and the hands of the governments we elect to lead us. We can read the reports for ourselves, and accept the idea that culture is the economic sector in which to invest for nations that are still developing; or we can share the delusions of our politicians, which confuse the grandeur of the monstrosities the foreign investors build (and usually protect behind gates and bridges and visitor passes) with development of a nation and of a people. We need to make up our own minds. From here on in, it's up to us.

On Travel

You ever notice how, when certain people travel, they go wherever they please without a second thought? From Ethiopia to Tibet, from Vienna to Baton Rouge, from Moscow to Santiago, they step off the plane or train or whatever got them there, they look around, and they feel well, not exactly at home, but entitled to be treated with a measure of dignity? These are the people who rise up in indignation when they’re challenged at borders, when they run into snags or problems, when their dignity is not recognized.On the other hand, you ever notice how, when certain other people travel, they pick where they want to go? They avoid certain places, they pick certain routes, they travel by specific forms of transport where security is the norm and not the exception, and when they step off the aeroplane, they prepare to be treated like immigrants or criminals or worse? These people may rise up in indignation when they’re challenged as well, but it’s not because they are shocked into that state. It’s because they’re all to familiar with their dignity not being recognized, and they’ve just become tired of it all.I’ve been travelling a lot lately. Now I’m not one of the people in the first group. I tend to expect border officials to be unfriendly, to be unwelcoming, to try and intimidate me into not blowing up whatever it is that they have. But lately I’ve been reminded that travel is good for you, despite the security clearances and the surly immigrant immigration officers who patrol the US border and the puffer machines and the various other beeping things. Travel is good for you.It doesn’t just open your mind, it blows it.On my recent trip to Trinidad, what blew mine is how fundamentally similar we Caribbean people are. While we Bahamians like to draw imaginary lines around and between us, aligning ourselves with northern people and assuring ourselves that we’re nothing like the Others, we lie to ourselves; even white Caribbean people (I met some in Barbados) are like white us.On my recent trip to Britain, what blew it then was the fact that London has become a European city. Never mind the rhetoric of the tour guides and the joshing that happens every now and then; every waiter who served us in a restaurant, half the ushers who seated us in the theatres, and every employee in our hotel was from Europe. And the pedestrians now walk on the right side of the sidewalks in London, and trot up the right side of the stairs of the Undergound, and London appears to have given in to it. Rare and far between are the signs instructing pedestrians to Keep Left; the Battle of Britain, at least in London, has been lost.But we — and by we I mostly mean Bahamians, but not entirely — don’t travel. Don’t get me wrong. We go places; we go shopping. We take planes and trains and we carry lots of money with us and several empty bags, and wherever we follow bargains and objects for consumption. But travel, the kind of travel I’m talking about, the travel that is part of one’s education, that stems from basic curiosity, that involves the discovery of unfamiliar places, is not a part of our cultural vocabulary.The thing is, it’s part of other nations’. It’s fundamental to their self-definitions. Europeans and Canadians include travel as part of their socialization in the world. Consider this. There are far more British and French and German and Danish and Austrian teenagers who are familiar with Africa and its various cultures than there are Bahamians, whose ancestors were brought from Africa. Young Europeans take summers and even years to travel around or even live and work in countries and cultures as different from theirs as they can possibly find. They learn other people’s languages, and they collect other people’s customs. Canadians do the same thing. Even Americans, who (apart from us Bahamians, who imitate Uncle Sam in every possible thing, good and bad, and bad more than good) are some of the most geographically challenged people in the universe, include summers in Europe or visits to Latin America as important parts of their exposure.There’s a reason for this, and it’s a far bigger reason than one might usually imagine. It’s so big I can’t possibly begin to address it in this article. But it’s so big it’s fundamental to who we are and where we place ourselves in this world.Because this distinction I’ve noted, about the way different people travel, is indicative of who we are, where we stand on the world stage, and what we ultimately think about ourselves.And it’s not something that we have a whole lot of control over.But it’s important. It’s important because it has something to say about us, our identities, our self-esteem. That’s the Big Picture.Here’s the little one, the one most policy-makers and decision-brokers pay attention to. We’re in the travel business. We have built our industry on the comfort-traveller. This person is usually American, and is usually unadventurous. This is the very person who’s unlikely to dash out and get a passport just to be able to leave his country and come to ours. Because we don’t understand travel, come January 2007 we are going to suffer an economic downturn while the comfort-travellers who are like us get around to securing their travel documents. We want to keep our market share, to remain head and shoulders above the our competition. But until we understand why people travel, unless we can step into their shoes, we are going to stay right where we are, and other people are going to catch us up and grow taller.Here’s what we have to begin to understand. Travel isn’t just about beaches and shopping, sunshine and good roads, or Coca-Cola in our vending machines. For many people in the world, travel is exploration. For them, the world is an empty map, waiting for them to blaze a trail onto it. Uniqueness, not imitation, is important. And until we learn this fundamental truth, we are going to find ourselves challenged, at least for a little while. It’s time for us to learn about travel.

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.

On Tourism

I want you to do me a favour. Take a minute and write a short paragraph describing The Bahamas.Done? Good. Now let me guess: you wrote about the beautiful blue water, the white sandy beaches, the coconut trees, and the warm and friendly people. (Those people who didn't pick any of these things skip two paragraphs and read on.)Now tell me how many times you went to the beach in the past year, how much of that gorgeous water you swam in, how many coconuts you ate from the shell, and how many people you were warm and friendly to on the way to work this morning.We are living a myth. It's not our own myth. It is a myth created beyond our realities by people who live in cold cities with industrial economies, who dream of endless sunshine and warm water and sand that's as white as a wedding. Most of us live out of sight of the sea, and have to drive or catch bus to get anywhere near it. Most of us relate more to our fruit trees and our shade trees than we do to the coconut palm -- we rest in the shade of silk cottons and ficus, we grumble at the dirt dropped from our beautiful and troublesome poincianas, and we snack on jujus and guineps far more than we feast on fresh coconut these days. Our coconut water is as likely to come from the food store as from the shell; and as for the sun -- well, very few of us spend more time out in it than we have to. And as for the friendliness of the people: well. Warm and friendly we may be, but we're also stressed-out and overworked and underpaid and forced to sit in more traffic than is good for any human.Tourism created the myth. We sell it, but we don't live it. In the words of Marion Bethel: in our air conditioned service, we are blessed waiters of grace divine.But it doesn't have to be like that.

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