Just a few hundred metres offshore from Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, stands one of the world's busiest tourist resorts. Hotels, a golf course, casinos and even a reconstructed medieval French cloister are incongruously scattered on its 277 hectares. It used to be called Hog Island, a scrubby wasteland named after the semi-wild pigs that foraged around its interior. Its makeover came in 1962 when the US entrepreneur Huntingdon Hartford II persuaded the Government to change its name to Paradise Island and built a bridge, unleashing a torrent of tourism-related investment. More recently, South African billionaire Sol Kerzner has invested in the strikingly pink Atlantis Resort and Casino; reclusive residents have included Howard Hughes and the Shah of Iran.

The Bahamas' transformation from subsistence farming to mass tourism took place over the 20th century but really accelerated from the 1960s onwards. Today the islands welcome over three million tourists annually, with the industry accounting for more than 60 per cent of GDP and over half of employment. Growth in the 1990s was largely fuelled by hotel construction, but the trade gap widened steadily, as food, fuel and machinery were imported.

Veronica Garbutt / Panos

The glittering attractions of Paradise Island are mirrored in other resorts, especially on the larger islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama, which cater primarily to US tourists. Cruise ships are also big business, with the Bahamas featuring on most itineraries out of Miami. But many of the 700 islands and 2,000 cays that make up the archipelago are either uninhabited or have much smaller-scale tourism.

The proximity of these small islands to the United States (Bimini is only 50 miles from Florida) has shaped their history. Loyalists founded settlements after the American War of Independence, bringing their slaves with them, while from the 16th century pirates used the isolated cays as bases. The British imposed colonial rule in 1717, but it was American trade, legal and illegal, that underpinned the economy. Arms and supplies were smuggled to Confederate forces during the American Civil War, making the fortunes of the 'Bay Street Boys', the white merchant élite operating out of Bay Street, Nassau.

But it was booze that really lined the merchants' pockets when the Bahamas became the favoured departure point for Prohibition busters such as Bill McCoy ('the real McCoy') who smuggled rum and whisky to thirsty 1920s America. Economically dominant, the white traders stalled the advent of democracy, preventing adult suffrage until 1961. Soon afterwards the firebrand black politician, Lynden Pindling, shot to power, promising a fairer deal for the majority.

Pindling, who died in 2000, became synonymous with corruption (he engagingly described himself as 'less than perfect'), even though allegations against him were never proven. Yet during his period in office, the Bahamas became notorious for another illicit trade - the smuggling of cocaine into the US. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s sleek and speedy 'cigar boats' plied the waters between the islands and Florida, with US coastguards overwhelmed.

The CIA continues to describe the Bahamas as 'a major trans-shipment point for illegal drugs' and is also concerned that undocumented refugees from Haiti and Cuba use the islands as stepping stones towards the US. A large Haitian community, meanwhile, does the dirty jobs that Bahamians prefer to avoid.

Few of the visitors to Paradise Island see these murkier sides to the Caribbean dream, though residents in more isolated islands such as Abaco have complained of growing drug smuggling. In this sense, the Bahamas is merely doing what it has done for most of its history: supplying American demand.

James Ferguson


It is almost 20 years ago that the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada briefly occupied the world stage with images of invading marines and celebrating islanders. But as 6,000 US troops took possession of an island of fewer than 100,000 people in October 1983, there was confusion as to where the action was actually taking place. Viewers of Soviet television news bulletins were disconcerted to learn that American forces had invaded southern Spain and taken the Andalucian city of Granada. Grenada’s emergence from international obscurity was the culmination of four turbulent years of revolution and social experimentation. The New Jewel Movement, a group of young radicals, had ousted the dictatorial Eric Gairy in March 1979 and introduced long-overdue reforms for the island’s impoverished majority. The revolutionary government, and especially its charismatic leader Maurice Bishop, won support at home and abroad, but the US viewed developments, particularly an alignment with Cuba, with deep suspicion. In the end, the revolution imploded in factional in-fighting, Bishop and several supporters were murdered and a short-lived and hated military council was swept away by the marines. Today, those traumatic events still haunt this beautiful island. Bishop’s body has never been found, while his killers, their death sentences commuted, languish in a jail high above the picturesque capital of St George’s. No real reconciliation has taken place and families still wonder what happened to their relatives. At the same time, the bonanza of US aid and investment, promised after the ‘intervention’ by the Reagan Administration, never materialized. With the Cold War over, Grenada was again no more than a dot on the map. But the legacy of Grenada’s ‘revo’ is not entirely dead. Individuals and communities learned much about self-belief and organization during the New Jewel period and a lively trade-union and NGO sector is testimony to that politicization. Today, opposition politicians complain that the government of Keith Mitchell has recruited many people prominent during the revolutionary period, an accusation that is not denied. It seems that even those hostile to the official Marxism of 1979-83 recognize that the revolution introduced innovative and valuable reforms after decades of corruption and stagnation. Perhaps most significantly, the modern Point Salines airport, built with Cuban assistance and fancifully depicted as a Soviet airbase by Reagan, is nowadays the key to Grenada’s modest prosperity. The island, like all its neighbours, is pinning its hopes on tourism and the airport is central to such plans. Agriculture is still the rural mainstay, but falling prices and a crisis in the banana industry have driven many young people from family-run farms to look for work in town or abroad. Tourism, and to a lesser extent data processing, offers not only employment but also much-needed dollars to a government that is painfully aware of a yawning gap between imports and exports. Even in tourism, the influence of the revolution can still be felt. Bishop’s Government banned high-rise developments and discouraged big foreign-owned hotel chains. As a result, Grenada attracts visitors with its small, family-run hotels and guesthouses. With strong environmental legislation and a determined bid to make hotels buy food from local agricultural producers, the revolutionary regime was ahead of its time. Few tourists strolling along the idyllic Grand Anse beach may realize it, but their holiday experience owes much to a far-sighted and radical government that the White House saw only as a ‘tyranny’.


There was a time not so long ago when outsiders just didn’t go to Trench Town. Until recently, this inner-city Kingston ghetto had such a reputation for violence that even armed police gave it a wide berth. But suddenly the former no-go zone is on the tourist trail and reggae fans can go to pay homage to the memory of Bob Marley at the so-called Culture Yard on First Street. The dilapidated ‘government yard’ tenement where Marley hung out with Bunny Wailer and other soon-to-be reggae legends is Jamaica’s latest and most unlikely heritage attraction.

The advent of Trench Town tourism suggests that the worst of Kingston’s political violence may be over – for the time being, at least. While there is still an unpalatably high national murder rate (849 in 1999), most deaths are linked to drugs and crime rather than party allegiance. The armed ‘dons’ who used to run the capital’s poorest areas as political fiefdoms have lost interest in partisan feuding, and recent elections have been mainly peaceful affairs. The People’s National Party (PNP) has held power for an unprecedented 12 years, while the rival Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) is stuck in the doldrums.

But the real significance of the Culture Yard is Jamaica’s determination to chase the tourist dollar. As competition hots up with other Caribbean purveyors of sand and sea, the island has sought to market itself as a cultural attraction, showing off its old plantation houses and colonial forts as well as its less picturesque slums. It has also tried to play down its image as a dangerous place, and so the Trench Town initiative is an important public-relations gesture.

Tourism is rapidly becoming the biggest player in the Jamaican economy, earning an estimated $1.3 billion in 2000. Cruise ships and ‘all-inclusive’ resorts are taking over from traditional hotels, placing the industry more firmly in the hands of large conglomerates. Even so, many Jamaicans, from ministry officials to beach hustlers, continue to depend on the industry and what little ‘trickles down’ from the likes of Sandals resorts, where tourists live inside well-guarded enclaves. Approximately one in ten of the population works directly or indirectly in the tourism industry.

The old export earners, bauxite and sugar, are meanwhile in decline. There were sharp drops in world aluminium prices during 1999, and Jamaica’s mining sector suffered accordingly. Sugar, an antiquated hangover from the island’s plantation past, is only kept alive by preferential quota arrangements with the European Union. A similar deal for bananas has been threatened by the World Trade Organization’s ruling that the EU is breaching free-trade rules by favouring Caribbean producers, and farmers are abandoning what used to be known as ‘green gold’.

Largely as a result of agricultural woes, Jamaica’s economy has shrunk for four consecutive years, while its debt, despite some rescheduling, is still an unacceptable burden at more than $3.3 billion. If the Government has succeeded in taming inflation, it has been at the cost of a recession, and unemployment is stubbornly high at 16 per cent of the workforce. Not surprisingly, as incomes fall and prices rise, tempers are likely to fray, as in April 1999 when the Government announced a 30-per-cent hike in the price of petrol/gasoline, leading to riots and eight recorded deaths. On that occasion some of the worst violence took place around Trench Town. Any repetition, the Government knows, would be bad news for the all-important tourism industry.

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