To hell with what tourists think: Time to break free of the tourist plantation

Noelle Khalila Nicolls Talkin Sense

The recent Klu Klux Klan style protest on Bay Street during the New Year’s Day Junkanoo parade is understandably causing outrage among Bahamians. However, my problem with the obscene display is not that a protest was allowed to take place, because I have no intrinsic problem with Junkanoo being used as a platform to protest. I have long been an advocate of Junkanoo embracing its sociopolitical roots and affirming more deliberately its African spirit. And I do not easily support censorship even when freedom of speech allows others to produce outlandish dribble that offends me.

That being said, there is no denying that the performance by the Coalition to Banish Louis Bacon was outrageous, offensive and embarrassing. The protesters who carried the mantle demonstrated a number of things: they have no respect for themselves or their ancestors; our education system failed them and us; and money is a great manipulator.

But while I have much to say on all of the above matters, this piece is not about my views on the protest or Junkanoo. It is about me being sick and tired of living by a tourist yardstick; having to measure everything we do – socially, politically, culturally, economically – by checking the temperature of what tourists think.

We like to talk about cultural and national sovereignty in the Bahamas, particularly as it relates to immigration issues, but the ultimate threat to our cultural and national sovereignty is the fact that we are enslaved by our perception of potential tourist perceptions. So I will stand with the other crazies who are not ashamed or afraid to say, to hell with what tourists think.

Obviously in a country that banks its economic survival on tourism this is not the sexiest slogan to be boasting out loud. And as an owner of a travel company called The Domestic Tourist it would be a lie to say I am not concerned about the Bahamas’s reputation abroad. What tourists think determines my bread and butter. But I am not so entrenched in the capitalist system to have lost all sense of my humanity, and furthermore I still carry a certain level of youthful naivety, so YOLO. Hear me out, because I don’t take my calculated disregard lightly.

The impulse to hide or downplay the unattractive parts of ourselves I understand makes sense in an economic context, but putting on a front is exhausting. And after a while it becomes spiritually oppressive. Plus, it leads to a way of being that says as long as our house looks clean from the outside we don’t have to get serious about actually cleaning it up.

As it relates to the KKK-evoking Junkanoo protest, the source of so much concern is how it made us look to tourists. Keep the homeless people off Bay Street for they’ll make us look bad to the tourists. Improve the entertainment scene so tourists will have more things to do. If our entire existence is to serve the needs of tourists then no one can deny we live on a tourist plantation. We can talk about service over servitude all we want, but if our service is in servitude to a force outside our own then it is six of one half dozen of the other.

Some would have us abandon the tourism enterprise entirely, feeling as though the collateral damage to our cultural and national sovereignty is too great a cost and that the entire enterprise is simply irredeemable. I have been there. But the more I travel around the islands and understand the impulse to want to visit the Bahamas is the less I can connect with a perspective that suggests there is something intrinsically wrong with the tourism enterprise. It is simply in the perspectives that drive our tourism approach; in the ideologies that shape our models of development.

Even though I participate in the tourist economy and sell my services not to the exclusion of international tourists, I called my company The Domestic Tourist, because I am not just selling the Bahamas, I am selling a philosophy of locally inspired travel.

The Bahamas is a country I personally travel and explore; I have and continue to experience the many islands for no other reason than my own pleasure, inspiration and healing. And in my business it is these authentic experiences in the Family Islands specifically I seek to share with fellow Bahamians and anyone else who wishes to know the Bahamas beyond its capital. It is also the authentic experiences of others – Bahamians and visitors – that I seek to experience for myself. The Bahamas lends itself to the travel economy because it is a great place to travel. I know this not because of the tourist propaganda (too many Bahamians only know the Bahamas by the slogans), but because I have travelled it myself and keep company with others who have also travelled the islands. This is the idea behind locally inspired travel.

In my own sphere of influence I am trying to transform the model of the tourist plantation, creating instead a country that is known and owned by those who actually call it home and operate a vibrant tourist industry. It is not so much about the product or the business model; it is about the perspective and the raison d’etre.

My personal perspective is that if the Bahamas is to be a set of paradise islands then I’ll be damned if I live here and never experience that paradise for myself. And if it is only a paradise for those who visit and not those who live here, then I’ll be damned if I don’t play my part to create a paradise for all.

Let’s look at this whole matter of perspective from another vantage point. Last year an American company contracted me to edit the 2015 edition of their Nassau travel guide. As I read through the guide I landed on the section that speaks to crime. The old guide read: “One area to avoid is a part of Nassau not usually frequented by tourists, known as the “over the hill” area, south of downtown. Most reported crimes have occurred there…”

I read this section about a dozen times trying to figure out what I should and could do with my editorial discretion. The language was pretty standard as far as tourism propaganda goes, but the words just did not sit well with my spirit. They did not reflect my perspective as a writer, editor or Bahamian. I experienced similar discomfort a few years ago when I sat an industry meeting, where an assistant commissioner of police was making a presentation, during which he proudly boasted, when they see tourists on the CCTV cameras walking past Meeting Street, they sometimes send a patrol car to advise them to turn back. This was used as an example of how police take crime [against tourists] seriously. (Yes, my thought also, that’s what they use CCTV cameras for. Really?).

With the travel guide dilemma I consulted with a cultural icon and mentor and decided to rewrite the section. I worked it and reworked it over and over trying to find the right words and the right balance. In the end, I came up with this: “Nassau is surrounded by traditional African Townships, which are densely populated areas of historic significance. Also known as “over-the-hill”, south of downtown, visitors do not usually frequent these residential communities, which are the scenes of most reported local crime…”

Was my edit significant? I suppose it depends on your perspective. For me, they were revolutionary. For the idea of ignoring all of the history and symbolism of “over-the-hill” by labeling it in one clean sweep as a crime infested area to be avoided is a narrative that will never help to transform over-the-hill into an area in which Bahamians can live in dignity and visitors can frequent with no fear. And further more if over-the-hill is an area to be avoided by tourists, then why the hell is it not an area to be avoided by Bahamians; and if this is what we think, then why are we comfortable to declare it for tourists but not for ourselves. Words matter. Perspective matters.

So bringing it back to the tourism plantation, the perspective we need to foster is that the Bahamas is first and foremost the country where we live, not a country to be sold on a tourist marketplace. Tourism is a means by which we generate revenue, not a reason for our being.

Let us not forget, the slogan, “it’s better in the Bahamas”, is tourist propaganda; at best it is an aspirational wish. And if this is earth shattering news for you, then read no further, because guess what: The American Dream is also a fantasy and American Exceptionalism is a myth. There are plenty of problems is “No Problem Mon” Jamaica. It’s all nationalistic propaganda. Every country uses it.

It is incumbent on us – the people who actually live in the Bahamas – to remember that our country is not a sexy slogan. It is a real place, where real people live, with a real history, with real stories of triumph and success and real problems.

Be warned: I am about to quote from Pirates of the Caribbean, which I randomly watched last night. “It is not about living, it is about living with yourself Jackie boy,” wisdom from Jack Sparrow’s father. The game of fronting we like to play is important for self-preservation, yes, but it is also destructive to our spirits. Living to survive is one thing, but living freely for oneself – self-determination – is another.

Some of us need to forget about the front and all of the energy it saps, and invest our liveliness in “being who we is and not who we aint”, to quote a great Bahamian ancestor, Jackson Burside. If we could only create a country we are proud to live in then we would have no need to front.

So I will rejoice on the day when the fairy tale of who we want to be matches up with the reality of who we are: the good, the bad and the ugly. At that point, I will still stay, to hell with what the tourists think. I will just have less anxiety about it, knowing that our reputation stands on solid ground.

So my fellow Bahamians can cry all they want about disloyalty and making the Bahamas look bad – blah, blah, blah. But anyone who has been through a real life transformation knows, there comes a time when you have to peel away the layers, the facades and stand in front of yourself naked and decide to love yourself despite it all; when you have to stop lying to yourself and to the world and simply get real. And when you put your clothes back on, the true members will still be standing at your side.

Yes, I would love tourists to believe and experience that it’s better in the Bahamas. Yes, I would love tourists to think the Bahamas is the best place in the world to visit, because it truly is a fantastic destination with much to offer the travelling world. Yes, I market the good side of who we are in my business and share the tourist propaganda. But at the same time, integrity, self-determination, spiritual alignment and fundamental human rights are of supreme importance to me. If the Bahamas is out of integrity; if the Bahamas is treating others inhumanely; if the Bahamas is abusing the fundamental rights of its own people, as is the case with this whole immigration mess, then the question should not be, what will tourists think, it should be, what are we as Bahamians going to do about it. One thing we should not be afraid to do is to speak.