Behind the Smile, Second Edition: The Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism

Behind the Smile, Second Edition: The Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism

by George Gmelch

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Behind the Smile is an inside look at the world of Caribbean tourism as seen through the lives of the men and women in the tourist industry in Barbados. The workers represent every level of tourism, from maid to hotel manager, beach gigolo to taxi driver, red cap to diving instructor. These highly personal accounts offer insight into complex questions surrounding

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Behind the Smile is an inside look at the world of Caribbean tourism as seen through the lives of the men and women in the tourist industry in Barbados. The workers represent every level of tourism, from maid to hotel manager, beach gigolo to taxi driver, red cap to diving instructor. These highly personal accounts offer insight into complex questions surrounding tourism: how race shapes interactions between tourists and workers, how tourists may become agents of cultural change, the meaning of sexual encounters between locals and tourists, and the real economic and ecological costs of development through tourism. This updated edition updates the text and includes several new narratives and a new chapter about American students’ experiences during summer field school and home stays in Barbados.

Indiana University Press

Editorial Reviews

The Nation (Barbados)

"Provides extraordinary insight into the personal views of tourism workers in Barbados.... [M]ake[s] interesting and sometimes surprising reading." —The Nation (Barbados), reviewing a previous edition or volume

Anthropological Quarterly

"The narratives are thought-provoking and Gmelch's comments are insightful. Everyone in the tourist industry should have this book on their shelves." —Anthropological Quarterly, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"Highly readable, conversational prose.... [Gmelch] is deserving of the most positive comparisons with Studs Terkel." —Amanda Stronza, Americas, reviewing a previous edition or volume

— Amanda Stronza

Americas - Amanda Stronza

"Highly readable, conversational prose.... [Gmelch] is deserving of the most positive comparisons with Studs Terkel." —Amanda Stronza, Americas, reviewing a previous edition or volume

From the Publisher
"The narratives are thought-provoking and Gmelch's comments are insightful. Everyone in the tourist industry should have this book on their shelves." —Anthropological Quarterly, reviewing a previous edition or volume

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Indiana University Press
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Second Edition
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Behind the Smile

The Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism

By George Gmelch

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 George Gmelch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00129-0



Tourism is travel dedicated to pleasure. Although the Oxford English Dictionary dates the term's first appearance in print to 1811, the concept of traveling for leisure dates back several thousand years to the ancient Greeks and later the Romans, whose elites traveled to exotic places around the Mediterranean. The Romans used the Isle of Capri as a holiday destination in what may be the earliest example of island tourism.

Some scholars argue that most early travel was unrelated to leisure; rather, it was aimed at satisfying other needs, such as pursuing opportunities for trade and commerce or seeking spiritual relief in making pilgrimages to sacred sites. Perhaps. But there can be little doubt that for many early travelers, such as Greeks and Romans visiting thermal baths, there was often a large element of leisure associated with the trip. We must not fall into the trap of believing that travelers always have a single motive. Even my academic colleagues manage to do some sight-seeing while on trips to attend professional conferences.

Thomas Cook and the Package Tour

British entrepreneur Thomas Cook is often credited with having started the modern-day organized tour. First a missionary and later an active temperance worker, Cook chartered a special train to carry passengers the 17 miles from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance meeting in 1841. The success of this guided excursion and subsequent organized trips to temperance rallies led to the formation of a travel agency bearing his name. Soon Cook was organizing weekend excursions to British seaside resorts, where the mass arrival of "commoners" and their simple ways horrified the refined upper-class visitors, sending them in search of new leisure destinations. By the late 1850s, Cook had gone continental, offering railway tours to southern Europe. Such tours were made possible by rapid innovations in transportation, notably the expansion of railroad and steamship companies, which originally had been built to serve the needs of Europe's new manufacturing industries. Cook and his meticulously groomed staff of tour guides ferried hundreds of thousands of Englishmen, Americans, and Europeans to historical, cultural, and recreational sites.

Cook's tours reduced the amount of effort individual travelers had to spend in planning and undertaking their own holidays, and they were affordable to middleclass families. "It seemed as if Mr. Cook's helpful agents were everywhere and always ready to arrange hotel accommodations, guided tours, and rail tickets or solve conflicts whether in Naples or in Smyrna," notes Ovar Lofgren (1999). His tours also made it possible for many middle-class women to travel, not only with their families but also with just female friends. In short order, Cook had become an institution, laying the foundation for mass travel by offering affordable prices and well-organized tours. His success encouraged a host of emulators on both sides of the Atlantic, and the organized tour became common. Some argue that Thomas Cook's great contribution was not so much the package tour (before his time, successful pilgrimages had also required similar skills and organization) but his creation of new markets for tourism. There was now a demand for travel opportunities where none had previously existed. Soon travel agencies, transportation companies, hotel chains, and entire governments began to mediate tourism in new ways.

As Europe's elites vacationed farther afield, some went to the Caribbean. The choice of destination was mostly determined by the reach of Europe's colonial empires. The British, for example, frequented Barbados and Jamaica; the French vacationed in Martinique, the Dutch in Curaçao, and the Americans in Cuba and the Bahamas. The cost and length of the sea voyage to get to such destinations meant that only the well-off could travel. And they stayed for substantial periods of time, weeks and even months. Although there were a few large hotels, most visitors stayed in guesthouses or in small exclusive colony, or club, resorts made up of individual bungalows, which fostered an intimate friendliness between visitors and local staff. The tourist season, as in Europe, was limited to the winter months. By 1900, tourism was a small but notable feature of the economy of Barbados, and no fewer than eleven steamships carrying visitors made regular calls.

Before the eighteenth century, there was not much interest in the beach as a place of recreational leisure (Lencek and Bosker 1998). After all, sand is hard to walk on, it gets into your clothes and food, and it blows in the wind. Early seaside resorts were developed primarily for their health-giving properties—dips in the sea, known as "sea bathing," were salubrious and were prescribed as general pick-me-ups as well as for serious medical conditions (Lencek and Bosker 1998). Healers and tourists alike swore by the vivifying effects of what they called "ozone"—sea air charged with saltwater vapor formed by wind passing over cresting waves. In fact, the wealthy Britons and North Americans who came to Barbados in the nineteenth century did so principally for the warm air and ozone-laden sea breezes. Medical opinion held that a heavy dose of sea air and sea bathing could help restore one's constitution. As early as 1751, the young George Washington, the future "First Father" of his country, accompanied his ailing older brother Lawrence, who was suffering from tuberculosis, to Barbados, hoping for a cure. (The plantation house—Bush Hill House—where they stayed for two months is today a national landmark and tourist attraction.) Guidebooks for tourists extolled the virtues of Barbados as a health resort, referring to the island as "the sanatorium of the West Indies." In the words of the 1913 Tourist Guide to Barbados, the "ozone greatly contributes to recuperation from any ailment." Barbados was also praised for its "copious supply of pure water" and for being free from malaria. Consider this testimonial from an American visitor:

In the fall of 1911, I found myself badly run down, after years of excessive work. I have contracted chronic bronchitis. My physician recommended that I leave the northern climate.... I consulted with friends, one of whom recommended Barbados. After a most exhilarating passage among the beautiful islands of the British West Indies I finally settled in Barbados. Two months of such bathing as I know of no where else, the genial climate and the freedom from the horrors of the northern winter resulted in a complete change in my physical condition. (Barbados Improvement Association 1913)

Going into the sea involved immersion, not swimming as we know it today. Before the nineteenth century, most bathers were naked because swimsuits had not yet been designed, and once they took their sea baths, they did not linger on the beach or sit in the sun. Heat and sunshine, it was believed, dried up the body's fluids and left it debilitated and prone to physical and moral ailments (Lencek and Bosker 1998). Moreover, since pale skin was valued as a sign of delicacy, seclusion, and idleness (and therefore wealth), nineteenth-century beachgoers ventured to the waters only in early morning or late afternoon. Off the beach, they walked and sat under covered walkways, gazebos, and verandas seeking protection from the dangers of the sun.

All this changed in the early 1920s. Among the upper classes, sunning became desirable, and tanned skin became associated with spontaneity and sensuality. It was the sun rather than the sea that was now presumed to produce health and sexual attractiveness. Beaches, preferably with fine white or golden yellow sand, were the ideal place to take the sun. As this view diffused down through the social classes, holidays at the seaside became popular.

The Airplane and the Era of Mass Tourism

Other than the industrial revolution itself, which introduced new ideas of leisure and new modes of consumption, nothing changed tourism more than the airplane. In the 1960s, long-haul jet service brought the Caribbean within reach of the ordinary holiday-maker. It reduced travel time from Europe to the Caribbean from three weeks by sea to eight hours by air. Postwar affluence and the adoption of guaranteed holidays with pay for most North American and European workers gave people the time off and the money to travel. Travel agencies and tour operators sprang up to package and promote Caribbean vacations. They popularized the idea of winter vacations in "exotic" tropical places and helped bring a Caribbean holiday within the price range of middle-income families. The new visitors, for whom the term "mass tourism" was coined, overtook in number and importance the elite travelers of the earlier period. Throughout the Caribbean, tourist accommodations and resorts sprouted along the seacoasts. (Inland areas are usually mountainous and too wet to attract visitors, other than those looking for nature and wishing to experience the rain forest.)

Jet airplanes also brought other Third World destinations within reach, but few attracted visitors like the Caribbean, with its fine beaches and natural beauty. And many Caribbean islands offer a diversity of landscapes in a small area. The Caribbean is relatively safe from disease and pests, and European and North American visitors can speak their own language (English, French, Dutch, or Spanish) yet still be in an exotic foreign place. The friendliness of Caribbean peoples has also helped draw tourists to the region. The travel brochures project an image of the Caribbean as a warm, sensual, escapist place. They feature colorful photos of pristine coral reefs whose waters are loaded with tropical fish, fruit stands displaying colorful papayas and mangos, foursomes playing golf on iridescent green courses beneath bright blue skies, sailboats skimming over azure blue waters, and couples walking hand in hand on the beach at sunset. It is an image of an alluring paradise, a simple place with happy, carefree, fun-loving people. In the collective European imagination, notes Polly Pattullo (1996), the Caribbean conjures up the idea of "Heaven on Earth" or "a little bit of paradise." It is no surprise that weddings and honeymoons are now big business in the Caribbean, or that the average holiday-maker has little awareness that the real history of the Caribbean is one of the annihilation of Amerindians, slavery and the plantation system, poverty, and underdevelopment (Crick 1989).

Caribbean governments began to welcome the visitors with open arms in the 1950s. Government leaders were almost unanimous in their enthusiasm for tourism. So were local elites, who identified with the consumerist lifestyle of the international tourist; indeed, some were themselves members of the international jet set (Crick 1989). Many governments viewed tourism as the key to their economic development, a notion shared by developing nations elsewhere. They were encouraged by international organizations, notably the World Bank and the United Nations, who endorsed tourism for the Third World as a "promising new resource" (Crick 1989, 316). But the World Tourism Organization (WTO) was the biggest cheerleader for the industry and for governments interested in developing tourism. Some organizations touted tourism as having almost limitless growth potential in attracting foreign currency. Tourism was also said to be attractive because it relied on natural resources that were already in place—sand, sun, sea, and friendly people—and it was thought to require low capital investments in infrastructure. Some advocates argued that by developing tourism, Third World nations could leapfrog the normal industrial phase of economic growth, advancing directly from a primary-resource-based economy to a service-based economy (Crick 1989).

In a 1973 publication titled "Tourism in the Americas: Road to a Better Life," the Organization of American States asserted that international tourism would "not only help raise the standard of living of the host country, but encourage integration of people through the interchange of ideas, drinking and eating habits, and styles of clothing" (Hiller 1976, 98). Even Pope Paul VI gave his blessing, declaring world tourism a "passport to peace," stating that it had a "civilizing mission" that would bridge the gaps separating social classes and cultures (ibid.). The private sector also touted the benefits, as it stood to profit most. In a lengthy press release titled "Tourism Is Number One Bread Winner for Many Lands Around the World," Pan American World Airways boasted that tourism created new agricultural markets, that it stimulated domestic infrastructure, and that "tourism money goes directly into the hands of the people—boot blacks and beauticians, maids and merchants.... It spreads widely and quickly ... 80 cents or more of every dollar a tourist spends is left in the countries he visits" (quoted in Hiller 1976, 96).

Such widespread enthusiasm for tourism helped overcome the reservations of some in the academic community who were concerned about the social impacts of tourism. The timing for tourism was right because the traditional plantation economies of the islands, which were tied to exports such as sugar, bananas, and bauxite, were in decline. Crick reminds us that these distorted monocrop island economies were initially created by the very European colonial powers who were now sending tourists. Prices for the Caribbean's commodities were falling as the world rearranged itself into free-market trading blocks, notably the European Union (EU) and, in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Caribbean manufacturing and agricultural industries were no longer competitive. Hence, governments throughout the region, anxious to diversify their economies, viewed tourism as an attractive alternative. Ministries of tourism and development corporations were set up to promote hotel and infrastructure investment. Tax incentives were offered to encourage foreign capital to develop tourism.

The Barbadian government—encouraged by a paternalistic elite who recognized the island's strengths of an ideal climate, natural beauty, political stability, and a friendly people—promoted the new tourism as a major sector of the economy. Spurred on with government incentives, hotel construction boomed, unemployment dropped, and visitors began to arrive. Before the tourism boom, most rural Barbadians worked in agriculture on nearby sugar plantations while also cultivating small private plots of sugarcane and vegetables at home. That pattern changed as tourism expanded, the economy diversified, and new jobs were created. Today, more Barbadians work in tourism than in agriculture, and most young people now disdain agricultural work altogether. The number of sugar plantations has shrunk to under 100 (there were 244 in 1961), the acreage in sugarcane production has dropped by over half, and sugar's contribution to the economy is now less than one-tenth that of tourism ($14.5 million versus $167 million in 2006).

Throughout the Caribbean, tourism has attracted increasing numbers of visitors from North America and Europe. Before World War II, the annual number of tourists who came to the region was hardly more than 100,000; by 1959, the region received 1.3 million visitors, by 1965 close to 4 million, by 1985 10 million, and in 2000 over 17 million. The economies of many Caribbean islands now rely heavily on tourism, which is often referred to as the engine of their growth. Tourism is the primary earner of foreign exchange in the region. By 1992, tourism in Barbados was earning more than all other sectors of the economy.

Beyond the hotel belt, tourism stimulates other sectors of the economy, the so-called multiplier effect. (The term "multiplier" comes from macroeconomics and is used to describe the total effect that an external source of income, such as tourism, has on an economy.) Simply put, the outward ripple of tourist dollars fosters demand for goods and services in other areas. Farmers, fishermen, and merchants benefit because they must grow and supply more fish, meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables, and fruit to feed the large number of visitors. The tourists' desire for curios and souvenirs generates work for local artists and craftspeople. Early on, the largest ripple effect is in the construction of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, and other facilities needed to cater to visitors. By the mid-1960s, for example, over half of all the construction on Barbados was associated with tourism.


Excerpted from Behind the Smile by George Gmelch. Copyright © 2012 George Gmelch. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

George Gmelch is Professor of Anthropology at the University of San Francisco and Union College. He has studied Irish Travellers, return migrants, commercial fishermen, Alaska natives, Caribbean villagers and tourism workers, and American professional baseball players. He is the author of eleven books, including (with Sharon Bohn Gmelch) Tasting the Good Life: Wine Tourism in the Napa Valley (Indiana University Press, 2011). He has written two other books on Barbados: Double Passage, which is about return migration, and The Parish behind God's Back: The Changing Culture of Rural Barbados. He has also written widely for general audiences, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, and Natural History.

Indiana University Press

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