Paving Paradise

Silversands Resort under construction, Grand Anse, Grenada

Even before we left Miami, Eric and I were warned by longtime cruisers that we would find cruising in the Caribbean drastically different from what we experienced on Duprass forty years ago. For one thing, cruising yachts have exploded in both size and number. Where Duprass at 27’ was on the small end in the 1970s, few of our fellow cruisers were much larger than 35’ and the vast majority were down-to-earth sloops. Now 40-60’ is more like it, and Corroboree at 35’ is surrounded by mod con-loaded yachts, fleets of charter boats, jumbo catamarans and professionally crewed megayachts. Where Duprass rode at anchor in quiet bays, mooring fields and marinas now claim the coast. In high season, we were told, the most popular anchorages resemble a shopping mall parking lot on the Saturday before Christmas. One cruiser described a scene of arriving boats jockeying for space and hailing those already in place with hopeful calls of, “Are you leaving? Are you leaving yet?”

Having transited from Puerto Rico to Grenada during hurricane season, Corroboree encountered  far less traffic. We also had to bypass some islands in order to be within quick reach of our designated hurricane holes. But in those islands we did visit, it isn’t just the cruising scene that has changed. It’s the character of the islands themselves.

Yes, they still have beautiful beaches, lush green mountains, and enough blue ocean to make your head swim. The views from almost every hilltop are spectacular, and the interiors offer verdant rain forests and sparkling waterfalls, sugar mill ruins and historic forts. Colorful shops and houses fill the cities and sprinkle across the countryside, and bursts of local music and noisy outdoor markets add to the lively feel.

But the islands also have Pizza Hut, Burger King and KFC, and some, most notably Puerto Rico, appear to be suffering an obesity epidemic. In the waterfront crafts market on St. Martin, the labels on the tropical shirts and dresses read “Made in India” and “Made in Indonesia.” While grocery shopping at the supermarket here in Grenada, I can catch up on the news via not one but two flat-screen TVs, one above the deli counter, the other above the exit doors, both tuned to the American political circus on CNN.

Most of all, the islands have tourists, disgorged from planes, cruise ships and private yachts. Eric and I fully recognize that we count among the invaders. It’s hardly fair to wish everyone else would go away and leave the islands unspoiled so you can have them to yourself. And there’s no denying that tourism is vital to the islands’ economies. A restaurant owner in Philipsburg on the Dutch side of St. Martin, despondent at her empty seats in September, told us that in high season they can get as many as eight cruise ships a day. Indeed, ports like Philipsburg, Gustavia in St. Barts and Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas earn their keep as duty-free malls selling perfume, jewelry, watches, leather goods and designer clothes to the eager hordes.

So with so much commerce pouring into the islands, the question we’ve been asking ourselves is this: Where is all the money going? Why isn’t every last islander rich? It’s a complex question that I’m not qualified to answer, but I have picked up a few insights from talking to people and my own research.

The first and probably most obvious factor is that jobs in the tourism sector are often seasonal and/or notoriously low paid. Since many of the resort developments are funded by foreign entities, the profits revert to them as well. One article also explained that many hotels source their food and other supplies from abroad rather than purchasing from local producers. That not only impacts the farmers’ personal income but discourages farming overall. Which means the islands rely yet more on imported food at a higher cost.

Meanwhile, tourism takes a huge toll on local resources such as the drinking water supply and stresses and degrades the environment. It gobbles up land and cuts off beach access in the name of privacy for hotel guests. The island governments surely bear some responsibility for this. Seeing yet another construction site, I have to ask: Who keeps authorizing these projects? What deals have they made? Why are the roads in the vicinity of the resorts in such good condition when the local roads are potholed and cracked?

So let the islanders start their own business ventures, you may say, and make a buck off the tourists themselves. Indeed, some do. They own taxis and car rental services and offer tours and dive boat excursions. When we pull into a marina, we are quickly visited by men offering to sand, varnish, paint and do other yacht maintenance jobs. But as an article about Antigua pointed out, the islanders don’t seem to be able to get the kind of credit needed to launch bigger businesses and also may not have the education to run a western-style enterprise. The most lucrative businesses on Antigua, the article continued, are run by persons from minorities of non-African origin. 

Which leads to the racial divide, not just between the rich tourists and the locals, but between the residents themselves. Some of the white and Asian residents have been here for generations;  others are retired ex-pats. Gated communities or at least separate neighborhoods seem to be the norm, and while Eric and I have not sensed any ill-will on either side, the feeling of a plantocracy still exists. You can’t help but notice that in the gated communities all the homeowners are white and all the security guards, ground crews and housekeepers are black.   

The islands are proud of their differing cultures and accomplishments and strive to preserve them and pass them on to their children. There are also responsible developers who are taking steps to preserve resources and limit their footprint. But the more we continue to pave and invade paradise, the more the land and the culture of the islands is in danger of being swallowed up. And I don’t say this to discourage anyone from going. On the contrary, go now, and when you do, step outside the resort gates and get away from the shopping mall on every cruise ship dock. Go find the green, go find the people, go find the birds and the shacks and the muddy paths. Go now, before it’s all just a playground for foreigners. Go while there’s still something left.

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