During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the sugar industry briefly ruled the land of salt. Forests were cut and cane was planted far and wide. Mills were built and a handful of slaveholders prospered from the labor of enslaved people.
On St. Martin, the industry did not last very long. St. Martin couldn’t compete with larger islands that had more rainfall. Sugar production literally and figuratively dried up here. During the middle of the 1800s, emancipation finally ended slavery.
There are echoes of the past in the crises we face today. During the late 1900s and early 2000s, the tourism industry ruled the land of salt. Hotels and restaurants were built on beaches and hills. The tourism industry provided great economic growth, but inequality endured.
As with sugar, tourism brought investment from wealthy nations. In foreign boardrooms or on the island, those who own and profit from the tourism industry often come from the same background as the slaveholders of previous centuries. Those profiting the least, or perhaps struggling to find work at all, are often descended from enslaved people. (There are, of course, investors, tourists and locals of all races, but to ignore history and the racial inequality that continues today comes dangerously close to embracing a Caribbean version of “all lives matter” when much work remains to be done.)
The coronavirus epidemic brings the tourism industry to a point of crisis. Analysts predict international travel will be down at least 80% during 2020. With no cure in sight, perhaps the peak of tourism on St. Martin is already behind us. It is a troubling thought. After the decline of sugar, it took over 100 years for tourism to bring economic growth back to the island.
Perhaps it is also a hopeful time. Some local scholars find the post-sugar and pre-tourism era a cultural peak. The late Daniella Jeffry called it the Traditional Period and said it “was characterized by the development of an egalitarian culture that gave rise to a common set of social, political and economic values and activities.”
The second global crisis of 2020 is the ongoing struggle against racial inequality. The flow of investment and tourists from wealthy, white-majority countries to poorer, black-majority islands builds bias into Caribbean tourism. Many old promotional images show white visitors enjoying the island, while black people are serving them. Today, with many service workers coming from Europe, many locals have been pushed out of tourism entirely.
The present is terrifying and the future is ominous. But if it is the end of an era, perhaps it can also be the beginning of something better. St. Martin could adopt a more sustainable version of tourism, and diversify into new industries. This could create more diverse jobs that bring more people into the economy. The people starting these new businesses may be more representative of the island as a whole. Perhaps there could be a “New Traditional Period” where greater equality and prosperity exist together.
What do you think the future holds for St. Martin? Send a message to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.
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