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Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be in the charming company of celebrated Caribbean Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, at our first ever Literary Festival held on the beautifully manicured grounds of the University of the West Indies.

Quite an opinionated and beguiling fellow, I must say. Among his words of wisdom was an interesting comparison of slavery and tourism. From Mr. Walcott’s point of view, ‘at least, during slavery you didn’t have to smile’. Walcott certainly has a basis for such an innovative comparison. And I am aware that his sentiments are shared by many.

Thousands of persons in the tourism industry, all over the Caribbean are inclined to work in this sector mainly by the attraction of high value foreign currency, and the fact that relatively little training is required, but not necessarily because it offers occupations in which they are passionately interested. Apart from this scenario, our regional governments seem ever so intent on convincing us that success in tourism is our only significant prospect for economic prosperity.

So the people go about their jobs with plastic smiles, often making ridiculously large efforts to grin, laugh and be friendly to the tourist. Children, from a very tender age are taught to wave and smile at the larger-than-life tourists while they drive by on the bus like celebrities taking pictures of the simple island people.

The funny thing is many of us forget that the average tourist is able to realize when someone is overly eager to please him, with sugary words of greeting. Let’s face it- if the Caribbean’s service sector was overloaded with so many brilliant actors and actresses in disguise, we would have our own colony in Hollywood by now.

I am not against tourism, but I certainly agree with those who feel that in too many islands it has not yielded returns which are comparable to the large investments and sacrifices made to accommodate visitors. Just think about it. Too frequently, you can’t get a bus to home, school or work when there’s a cruise ship in port- the bus drivers all morph into taxi men. The road network is often totally jammed as a result of the cruise ship as well and both students and workers must leave their houses more that 15-30 minutes earlier than on a regular dat. Sometimes the water system to certain communities is disrupted to supply the needs of the ship in port.

As long as tourism remains the main focus for economic development by our Caribbean leaders, these are situations to which we all must adjust, whether we like them or not. But one of the downfalls of tourism is that it really does make some of us feel like we just can’t do much better for ourselves as a people, for economic survival. The average vendor- toothless or not- must smile all through his day- or else the tourist will feel uncomfortable and he won’t get paid.

I never thought about it, but here are probably a lot of vendors out there who don’t want to have a smile stuck on their face all day long. But they have too. It’s this sort of compulsive ‘singing for our supper’ role that Walcott was referring to. Once again, he is opening our eyes…

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