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Vacation Dystopias: A Review of Last Resorts by Polly Patullo

Bennett Baumer Mar 7, 2006

The one thing a tourist hates is other tourists. And you know who I’m talking about: skin sun-burned to hell, goofy t-shirts that read “Life is a Beach” and the requisite oversized sombrero. They are the throngs shuffling off cruise ships docked in Montego Bay, Jamaica, or the crowd at an all-inclusive hotel slurping piña coladas and lounging by the water in the Bahamas.

Looking for fun in the sun, tourists to the Caribbean usually find it, but what benefits do they bring to the region? In Last Resorts, Polly Pattullo presents an Economics 101 of tourism in the Caribbean.

Paced like an undergraduate reading assignment, the book is packed with every aspect of tourism from the cruise ship industry to crunchy granola backpackers on eco-tourist boat rides in preserved lands. The first tourists to the Caribbean, roughly encompassing the Florida Keys to the coasts of Venezuela and Guyana, were the landed gentry and industrial barons of the global North escaping cold winters. They felt at home with the plantation owners and “the help” was always friendly.

Today, everyone from middle-class suburban couples to vacation-loving Germans can lay down one check and get the food, drink and beach package without leaving the hotel and its friendly staff.

However, many of these hotels are built with local government subsidies, pay low wages and monopolize the best beaches. Adding salt to the wound, the hotels are mostly foreign owned and have an exclusive clientele.

Last Resorts strikes the heart of the matter when it asks if the plantation society of yore is reincarnated in the tourism of today. The hotels, cruise ship companies and, most important, the airlines buy up the islands and make the profits. Whenever big business wants something (usually tax breaks or the right to build on ecologically fragile land) investors threaten to leave town.

The sometimes awkward interaction (if any) between tourists and Caribbean locals usually starts and stops with an exchange of goods. In its most extreme form, the goods are the local teenage girls in the company of pasty middle-aged johns who procure them.

Sex tourism is especially rampant in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Last Resorts lays out a barrage of facts and numbers and poses tough questions to the tourist industry and vacationers. The book is a buzz kill, so don’t put it in your tote bag before leaving LaGuardia, for your winter getaway.