Sun and Sand, Rum and Reggae

The Challenge of Tourism for Church and Society in the Caribbean

Roderick Hewitt

The Caribbean economy has been historically designed to meet colonial priorities and tourism, too, serves the interests of the North. Tourism built around four infamous “S’s”: sun, sea, sand and sex has led to disruptive behaviours, raising issues of human dignity that invite a response from the churches.

The Caribbean is a melting pot of cultures from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Most of the islands were intentionally organised around mono-cultures such as tobacco, sugar and bananas that kept the people poor and dependent on food imports. The colonial economy was replaced by the capitalist economic paradigm where profits superseded all other factors.

With the post World War 2 economic revival in Europe and the USA, a new economic colonisation of the Caribbean was introduced through mass tourism. The technological changes in transportation brought large numbers of air and cruise ship travellers to the islands. The islands had little choice but to embrace this model of development. Tourism became the only viable asset to keep their economies afloat – but at a heavy price.

Impacts of tourism in the Caribbean

Key national assets of the coastlines and smaller islands were sold off to the highest bidders who were usually foreign capitalists. Local citizens lost the rights to vast beaches as they became the exclusive rights of use for paying tourists. Issues of beach front squeeze arise from over-building of hotels on small plots by the sea.

The overwhelming argument used to validate giving the tourist industry a privileged space through significant tax incentives is that the industry makes a significant contribution to the economy through employment. However, the high dependence on foreign capital means that the outflow of capital is also very high. A lot of the money that is spent in the country goes straight out as profits or to purchase foreign products needed by the industry.

The social changes bequeathed by the tourist industry have resulted in some problems that must be addressed. Tourists usually travel with their culture. This has resulted in cultural identity loss on the islands. The sad reality is that in those areas where one expects to see the local people earning much from the sale of their produce to the tourist, close examination of the beautiful craft work or T-shirt with the label Jamaica is usually “made in China”.

Finally, the small island nations do not have the resources to patrol the waters that are used by cruise ships. This can result in waste being illegally dumped with no one being held accountable.

The role of the Church

From the early stage of tourism development, the primary concern of the church was on the moral fallout from the industry. The free lifestyle of tourists associated with their loose dress code, marijuana smoking, sexual freedom, hedonism, and casino gambling influenced the churches to lobby the government to put measures in place to protect local citizens from imported vices. They viewed the social cost of the industry outweighing the benefits. The eco-theological reorientation involves a shift from an anthropocentric predominance of creation to a new balance that takes into account all other forms of life.

Protecting cultural heritage

Another important role of the church and the educational institutions is to serve as active representatives of culture and heritage. Many of the churches linked to the 19th and 20th century missionary era are a repository of an irreplaceable heritage of a past era. In many Caribbean nations, the voice of the Church constitutes the only respected institution that may influence decisions of government and the business sector to build on historic sites. With strong pressure on government to provide jobs, historic sites are at times sacrificed in the name of so-called economic progress.

Promoting sustainable tourism development

Caribbeanchurches are important institutions within local communities. Long before Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) became popular in raising public awareness and lobbying for environmental and other justice issues, the Church functioned as the alternative voice that held political and economic powers accountable. In the contemporary era, the Church’s influence in society has generally shifted from the centre to the margins. Therefore, new methods of solidarity and partnership with victims of uncontrolled political and economic interests that promote mass tourism must be engineered in order to promote sustainable tourism development.

The role of the Church is to be an uncompromising voice for human dignity and respect for all creation, in holding accountable all agents in the tourist industry. Churches and all other religious communities within the Caribbean should become actively involved in shaping the principles that govern tourism management within the region. It is necessary for the church through its partnership with theological institutions of higher learning to equip people with the skills to criticise the deceptive options being offered by the neo-liberal economic order that powers the greed within the tourism industry.

Prof. Dr. Roderick Hewitt, from Jamaica, is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.

This article is a shortened, edited version of "Sun, Sand, Rum, Reggae” The Challenge of Tourism for Church and Society in the Caribbean" by Roderick Hewitt, published in "Deconstructing Tourism: Who Benefits? A Theological Reading from the Global South", edited by Caesar D’Mello, Wati Longchar Philip Mathew, published by the Programme for Theology and Cultures in Asia (Tainan) and SCEPTRE (Kolkata), 2014. Available at:

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