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Wednesday 24 April 2019
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Commentary

Sun, sea, sex and no Sandals

AFTER the sudden announcement of Sandals withdrawal from Tobago, the island’s self-styled environmental and spiritual guru Elspeth Duncan spoke for many who had opposed the project. In a Facebook post after the press conference, she did not crow like some who quickly claimed a moral victory.

Instead she suggested that the Sandals saga showed Tobago "what it stood to lose” and suggested that “what was previously taken for granted needs to be valued." Elspeth used to write the wonderful Tobago Peeps column in the Guardian (she's since moved to the Tobago Newsday) and has a deep affection for the Tobagonian people (and its animals) but also a deep desire to improve their lot and to enrich the place in terms of its sociological progression.

Like many social media-based activists, Elspeth had been primarily concerned about the destruction of the wetlands and Buccoo Reef. I suspect that proposed environmental wipe-out – which would have been subject to legal challenges, protests and great anger – was the primary reason for the withdrawal of Sandals.

The "bad publicity" that CEO Gebhard Rainer cited was indeed relentless, but, by Trini standards, only just getting started. The “Where de money goin’?” and “Who financin’ dis?” camps argued with the “You all backwards, yes” and “Tobago people need jobs” corner.

Elspeth, like some in the tourism sector, said that she prefers small businesses in Tobago to be supported to growth by government investment, rather than international chains being helped to expand their profits and market share.

"Tourists don't come here to experience a mass-produced hotel chain," she wrote. "They come to meet down-to-earth people, taste a basic and simple life and enjoy our unique services and offerings." It's a utopian vision and was partly my reason for first visiting Tobago as a British tourist in 2012. But like most visitors to the Caribbean – particularly as I was free and single – I wanted sun, sea and sex. That's what we come here for. (And, occasionally, bacchanal and powder.)

Right or wrong, it's hard to see that changing. That is what mass tourism and its accompanying marketing strategies project. It’s a concept, an idea of a place, a myth even. Not many tourists experience all three Ss. Many are too shy, inhibited or unlucky to get the elusive sex, and settle for sun and sea.

Sandals perpetuates that marketing myth of the Caribbean and very successfully, if somewhat unethically and discriminatorily. As I wrote in a VICE News article in 2014, the Sandals franchise banned gay couples from 1981 until 2004 before finally changing its policy after international commercial pressure.

It may not be a wholesome concept for holidaying, but many places are smuttily stereotyped, whether it’s the Alps for skiing, fondue and sex; Ibiza for clubbing, pools and sex; Paris for sightseeing, romance and sex; or London for the Queen, rain and an early night.

Sex sells, and so do brands which market sexiness. Sandals is one of those. And Tobago needs sexing up. Metaphorically, if not literally. The birth rate is stable, thanks.

Returning to the first four words of Elspeth's paragraph, quoted above: "Tourists don't come here..." She could have ended right there with a full stop. There is a serious need to get tourists going to Tobago in large numbers and while the Sandals deal was clearly dubious, the pull-out is a massive blow to those ambitions.

Post-announcement, Afra Raymond said, “I am not counting this as a victorious moment at all.” This was a lose-lose-lose. Tobago didn’t get Sandals. Sandals didn’t get Tobago. And Afra didn’t find out why. The only “small business” doing a roaring trade sustainably in Tobago is the foreign-owned boutique lodge Castara Retreats.

It would be great if others had replicated that model, but they haven’t. So, while the Sandals collapse is a victory for the ecology of Buccoo, most Tobagonians will see this as a defeat, and one largely dealt out by Trinidadians whose voices were loud and strong. It may exacerbate historic economic tensions between the two islands.

The collapse wasn’t due to a "handful of people with personal agendas" as Stuart Young suggested. That minister of several portfolios seems destined to create a new niche as Minister of Propaganda. Agenda is a powerful word as a sound bite, but vacuous unless one specifies what that agenda is.

If he meant Raymond's agenda in seeking transparency on the financial arrangements and the economic and employment benefits a Sandals resort might bring to Tobago, then that is not an agenda to fell a deal, but one that the government should have responded to positively and above board.

If he meant the environmentalists' agendas, then perhaps government ought to have picked a better location for such a major development, not just the cheapest option. And not a site of ecological importance to Tobago's wildlife and the world's ornithologists. "Sandals obliterates rare birds" and “Effluent in the Sea” are not sexy headlines.

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