The History of that Supposedly-Fun Caribbean Vacation

Blake C. Scott is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. His work looks at the history of mobility and immobility in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially around issues of transnational travel and tourism.

A little over 100 years ago there was no such thing as a “vacation” to the Caribbean. At the turn of the twentieth century, travelers from North America and Europe still thought of the Caribbean as diseased and dangerous. It was, according to many observers, “the white man’s graveyard.” But today, in the early twenty-first century, the Caribbean is packaged as a sort of gringo utopia of luxury and relaxation. How did this radical transformation take place, from a diseased landscape to a desirable destination?

Although tourism has no specific origin story—was Columbus a tourist? was Theodore Roosevelt?—there are still important historical changes to understand and remember. There is nothing timeless about today’s traveling culture. The modern tourism industry stretching from south Florida to northern South America emerged out of a long and complicated history of colonialism, slavery, exploration, and dreams of the exotic.

Tourism has become one of the most ubiquitous industries in the U.S.-Caribbean world. (Millions of tourists and billions of dollars every year.) Images of “tropical paradise” can be seen in advertising, film, literature, and end-of-the-year corporate incentives. And yet amazingly, there is a relatively slim historiography on the subject. How do we account for this lack of discussion about tourism’s history? We seem to be stuck in the present.

To offer a guide into tourism’s past, I have put together an eclectic list that combines geographic (across the Caribbean Sea) and temporal breadth (from the colonial to contemporary era) with a few just knockout, page-turning texts. Collectively, these stories challenge us to denaturalize and rethink the meaning of Caribbean tourism. If you make it through this list, I promise you’ll never think about leisure travel the same way again. Bon voyage, buen viaje, safe and conscious travels.

Havana, Cuba
February 19, 2016

Places to Start

Europeans and North Americans have long dreamed of the Caribbean. Tourism is only the most recent manifestation. Its history links to centuries of colonial encounter. Sheller’s history of foreign patterns of consuming the Caribbean, at times, can be a tough theoretical read. She offers, though, an intellectual foundation for thinking through later tourism developments. Here we learn about the influential colonial predecessors to modern tourism.

Although the Caribbean is now supposedly the most “tourism dependent’ region in the world, it was not the first historical stop on the tourist circuit. Practices of leisure travel, Eric Zuelow shows, go back to the era of the European “grand tour” and perhaps earlier. Modern expectations of Caribbean tourism forged when old Europe met the new Americas.

Digging In

No history of Caribbean tourism can pass over a clear and pervasive fact: the modern tourism industry developed side-by-side U.S. imperial expansion in the early to mid twentieth century. There is nothing frivolous about tourism’s history. To learn more about leisure travel’s relationship to U.S. foreign policy, see Merrill’s well-documented monograph, which retraces events in interwar Mexico, pre-revolutionary Cuba, and Puerto Rico during the Alliance for Progress in the 1960s.

In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century, white Europeans and North Americans viewed much of the Caribbean as a virtual graveyard. Taylor merges economic and political history with a cultural read of European ideas of the tropics to show how the island of Jamaica was transformed into a tourist’s paradise yet with serious consequences for local residents. That all-inclusive resort on the north coast will take on new meaning after reading this book.

Criticisms standing, tourists are not all the same. Focusing on the diversity of travel experiences in Mexico, this edited collection demonstrates that tourism development often fulfilled both foreign expectations and local aspirations. In addition to chronicling tourist perceptions and experiences, the volume’s contributors describe how state authorities, indigenous market vendors, and diverse business owners vied to get-in on the tourist economy. From the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth-first century, travelers from the north have crossed the border into Mexico in search of knowledge, adventure, escape, pleasure, and an assortment of goods, experiences, and personal relationships they couldn’t find at home. Mexican business owners and entrepreneurs sought to meet those demands.

New Moves

Sometimes “new moves” can really be old ones rediscovered. In the case of tourism’s history and culture, anthropologists are ahead of the game. In Roland’s book, we are reminded how pervasive race and racism have been and continue to be in the tourism industry. Whether it’s a communist government or a neoliberal state, tourism depends on old stereotypes and prejudices about who can and can’t be a tourist. Consult this well-written ethnography to learn, in particular, about the social and racial contradictions of tourism development in Cuba since the revolution.

Pleasure, sex, money: vices that don’t seem to disappear. Sex tourism in the Caribbean and other “tropical” locales is a booming business. Denise Brennan gets close to this sensual tourist scene in one small community in the Dominican Republic to show how local women and foreign men rely on one another in the modern age of global economic inequality. The stories she tells reveal insightful lessons about the complicated cross-cultural contacts that happen in tourist towns.

Voices and Lives

Being a tourist, depending on one’s mindset, can take an existential toll. Luxury and comfort, the author David Foster Wallace realized during one vacation, can cause extreme discomfort and despair. In this humorous and self-reflexive look at a seven-night Caribbean cruise, we learn that packaged fun and professional smiles may be more harmful than pleasant. Every tourist should read this essay before they board a luxury cruise.

A few summary lines couldn’t do this book justice. It’s a Molotov cocktail of poetic truth. A passionate plea to wake up from the tourist haze. A bitter condemnation of home ruined. An essential read for anyone interested in Caribbean literature, history, and culture. Kincaid’s experience of one Small Place—the island of Antigua—reflects an unfortunately broad trend of Caribbean communities depending on tourism.

“This sure is a lot of books,” you might be thinking, “to read about tourism before that next vacation. Sounds like work.” Ok fine, how about a movie? With reggae music setting the mood, filmmaker Stephanie Black reveals how tourism in Jamaica fits into the era of forced globalization. After Jamaica’s independence, the English found new ways to maintain influence in their former colony, which ranged from fancy resorts to structural readjustment policies. The Caribbean’s tourism industry reminds us of history’s amazing ability to accumulate rather than fade away. History just keeps piling up, from one era to the next. Visitors to Jamaica, or to any of the other “small places” covered in this list, should pack that critical awareness in their minds and in their bags, along with their sunscreen.