The Saint Lucian government had been pushing for increased tourism on the island, and so as editor of Drum magazine, I went to have a look.
I met up with the Right Honourable Phillip J. Pierre – Minister for Tourism, Commerce, Investment and Consumer Affairs – to discover his philosophy on sustainable tourism and economic development in the region.
I wanted an opportunity to sit with the Minister and talk about some of the things that were of interest to our Drum readers. They wanted to know about sustainable development. I wanted to find out how Drum could help to encourage more travel to the Caribbean and have a presence in the area. One of the obvious benefits would be in helping to develop a stronger skill base (and economic potential) to counteract the usual Caribbean brain drain.
Returning nationals can only be a good thing, or so I thought, either by way of investment and business, or simply as a beautiful country in which to live and enjoy life.
What we so often see instead is foreign nationals investing in the Caribbean who don’t always have the people’s best interests at heart. I was playing Devil’s Advocate now.
The minister smiled and nodded his agreement but before turning to tourism, I wanted to challenge his perception of a changing Saint Lucian youth culture blighted by the ever-present effects of Uncle Sam.
So does American TV and culture really influence the behaviour of young people in Saint Lucia?
The question and the challenge we have is how to get through to our young people. If you walk in Castries now, you can see that the influence of American television and culture is international, and you could be anywhere in the world. The style is the same, the music the same, the dancing the same, everything. The problem that we have is how, if possible, to stem that flow. How to reach out and reclaim our young people? And it’s partly down to the media.
What has happened is that the press in this region has become political. The press believes that its role is to attack Government. They don’t look at issues like the cultural dynamics, negative influences from abroad, or the bridging of different Caribbean interests; their role is to attack Government. The press has a responsibility, and its responsibility is to inform, not to pressure. The press has become like a pressure group.
So how do you persuade the press to act more responsibly?
Well, you see, anybody can become a journalist in Saint Lucia. People leave school, they have a CSE in English; they become press people. It is the only occupation that you need no qualification to enter in Saint Lucia. So, the press now becomes an imposition of the personality, or the group, which owns it. You guys have a variety of press, left, right, centre, and whatever. You don’t have that problem.
Why do all the top jobs in big hotels seem to go to foreigners?
For the simple reason that we entered the tourism industry late. We made our money in bananas. The best brains did not go into tourism. That’s a fact. A hotel owner would prefer to hire a Saint Lucian because he pays him less. He doesn’t have to give him a house. He doesn’t have to bring his wife and children down. We’ve been late in the tourism industry. We are a banana people. Bananas made our money. When I was in school, I had the best brain but I would never go into tourism. I studied economics.
And your friends?
My friends all studied physics and maths. We became historians, got degrees in science, studied English Literature–while some of the other guys did medicine. So what happened when the country entered the tourism industry is that the guys, all due respect to them, who didn’t pass exams–they all went into tourism.
So there you have your answer. Now, there is a new generation of hotel managers emerging. Bright young people who have studied hotel management and can pass exams. And further, in the hotel industry, you must start from the bottom.
Does the government encourage foreign investors to empower local people through training and educational grants and bursaries?
Of course we do. I’m a Pan-Africanist. I’m a fellow who really believes in black empowerment and the collective interests of our people, but I will not tell you that this or that action is deliberate. I will tell you that there might be barriers put in the way. It’s like the bar might have been a little higher sometimes because in the tourist industry you basically serve white people. I never wanted to serve white people.
So can advertising aimed exclusively at white holiday makers really encourage returning nationals or other black frequent flyers like myself with a natural connection to Saint Lucia and the rest of the Caribbean?
I know what you’re getting at. You see, we have not planned the vertical change in the tourism industry. We do not control the source. We are only at the level of the service.
We’ve got to economically empower ourselves, and what empowers us is money. Black people because of our lack of education and access, and I don’t mean degrees, but we are always working for other people. This is a serious problem that is not easily solved.
My brother, if you look at it superficially, you will see that what has happened to us is that we have not gone where money is. If you look at the black families in Saint Lucia who had money in the past, they have no money now, because they didn’t put it into wealth creation and emerging industries.
How does Saint Lucia support returning nationals?
This government has helped returning nationals a lot. You come back here; you get all your stuff duty free. Once you’ve lived ten years in England and you come back to Saint Lucia, you can bring in all your belongings duty free. You get your car, your equipment, your tools, you get everything duty free. We welcome you back home in order to help create a more stable environment for our future.
Do you sometimes find your hands tied by the workings of the US?
Part of the problem is that we cannot legislate for the majority because we get buckled by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
So your economic policy has to be across the board otherwise I get called by the US State Department because we want to only import 25% of chickens from abroad. We have our own chickens! But I get called by the State Department all the time because they tell me we are flouting WTO rules.
In other words, Uncle Sam still has power over developing economies through organisations like the World Bank, IMF, WTO and others. So now, as Caribbean people in the region, we have to be strategically prepared, and decide that we’re working together, and forget partisan politics.
Can a British magazine like Drum provide any real help in this climate?
First of all, you have to up your circulation in this region. I noticed that youâ€™ve had some very interesting articles. I’ve been getting it. Did you see a copy in the waiting room outside? It’s very striking.
I saw a few topics there that are real. You had something called Men on the Downlow, about men who go out with men. That’s a real topic. A topic that plenty in Saint Lucia wouldn’t want to believe exists because most people are still homophobic. If a guy in Saint Lucia wants to pay you an insult, he’ll call you, “Bulla” (gay). Though you’re probably not a homosexual and he knows nothing about your lifestyle. “Bulla,” he’ll shout.
So you see where we are – education, education, education! Whether it’s Barbados, Saint Lucia, Antigua or Jamaica, there are a number of similar issues that we need to face and come together and work on in the Caribbean. Other people do it. Why not us? But it takes guys like you who have transgressed, guys who have gone that step further, and can be role models to our people.
They’ll listen to you. No one listens to me, I’m a politician.