Tackling Tourism—Cate Cameron
Catherine M. Cameron, Ph.D
Professor of Anthropology
Picture jogging down a beautiful white sand beach, the foam at the edge of the azure sea splashing under your feet as the sun’s rays warm you to the ideal temperature. This scene is played over and over again in the minds of millions who inhabit temperate climes during the winter months, and it’s the reason why many islands in the Caribbean are cash cows when it comes to generating tourism dollars.
But how does the other half live? Does living by the blue sea remain a treasure for those whose families have inhabited these Caribbean destinations since well before they were a glint in a travel agent’s eye or a developer’s dream? Are these people of modest means flourishing in the shadows of glamorous hotels catering to tourists with far fatter bank accounts—or floundering?
Catherine Cameron, Ph.D., professor of social sciences at Cedar Crest and an anthropologist, has studied tourism in the United States for many years, dating back to a study she had published in 1987 exploring how the steel town of Bethlehem marketed itself to people throughout the mid-Atlantic states, especially through its summer music festival, Musikfest.
The burgeoning tourism industry in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a series of approximately 40 small cays and islands south of the coast of the Bahamas, has provided a fantastic opportunity for Cameron and her husband and co-researcher, John Gatewood, Ph.D. – an anthropology professor at Lehigh University – to study how tourism is impacting an island country before it becomes a mature tourist destination with little hope of turning back the clock.
“A lot of Caribbean governments never bother to find out what local residents think about tourism,” said Cameron. “In the Bahamas and Jamaica, tourism has gone way down over the years because the locals became disturbed and distressed by the huge presence of tourism on the islands. Tourism is a person-to-person industry, and when the local residents start mistreating the tourists and stealing from them, the tourists stop coming.” Both countries mentioned have had to do a major, internal campaign to remind people of the importance of tourism and external public relations to bring the visitors back.
The Turks and Caicos were originally a tourist destination for a sparse number of divers in the 1960s who were interested in examining the country’s beautiful and abundant reefs rated as among the best in the world by diving magazines, according to Cameron. It wasn’t until after Club Med paved the way in 1984 that grand tourist hotels began popping up in the main tourist island of Providenciales, and from that point forward the government has made a conscious effort to attract primarily wealthy tourists. Today, tourists to the country number about 300,000 annually as stay-over and cruise ship visitors.
The Turks and Caicos have about 30,000 native residents – colloquially referred to as Belongers – with nearly half residing on Providenciales or Grand Turk Island, where the government is based. Over the past few years, the lives of these Belongers have largely been turned upside down due to increasing tourism.
“These islands have experienced a very rapid culture change. Until about 25 years ago, local people had been living a sleepy island life, but with all this tourism they began to see great infrastructural changes to accommodate the influx of tourists,” said Cameron. “We wanted to know, ‘What do Belongers think about the impact of tourism on their country from an economic, ecological and socio-cultural perspective?’
Cameron and Gatewood were introduced to the islands by John Cigliano, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, who ran a marine course there for Cedar Crest students through the School for Field Studies. They accompanied Cigliano on an initial visit in 2004 and returned in January 2005 with 13 of their own students for an anthropological field school on the island of South Caicos, thanks to funding provided by their respective schools.
Cameron and Gatewood returned to the Turks and Caicos during the summer of 2005 to do a mini-feasibility study of the islands to see if it would be suitable for a long-term study. They met with tourism officials, civil servants, and representatives of the Turks and Caicos government so they could pitch a follow-up project that would take a closer look at residents’ attitudes toward tourism. Later, they applied for a National Science Foundation grant to study tourism on the islands during the summers of 2006-07. It was approved and funded.
In 2006, the couple spent more than two months in the islands conducting 30 in-depth interviews with Turks and Caicos’ Belongers. From these interviews, they constructed a thorough 10-page questionnaire, which they brought back to the islands during the summer of 2007. With the aid of local research assistants, they were able to capture opinions from 277 respondents from Providenciales, Grand Turk, North Caicos, Middle Caicos and South Caicos – five of the handful of inhabited Turks and Caicos islands.
Cameron said there are typically three stages of tourism: Stage 1, during which the local population is euphoric about tourism and the money it pumps into the local economy; Stage 2, during which the enthusiasm of residents levels off and even morphs into irritation as tourism leads to increased traffic and more crowded beaches, among other standard of living woes; and Stage 3, during which locals look to subvert and undermine tourism by exploiting tourists. Often, this leads to a rise in crime. According to Cameron, her research indicates that tourism in Turks and Caicos is probably at the tail end of Stage 1, where euphoria is beginning to wane and cynicism is growing.
“Our research is showing that while no one is entirely opposed to tourism because Turks and Caicos has very little else in the way of industry, the Belongers have split into two basic groups,” said Cameron. “First, you have those who constitute the really gung-ho group, which is still very much in support of tourism. Then, you have another group that supports tourism and realizes it’s just about the only game in town when it comes to industry, but is worried about how tourism is impacting natural resources, including reefs and mangroves. They are also afraid that the government is going to sell off too much of the protected coastal areas to developers.”
Many Belongers also feel like outsiders are overwhelming the island culturally, said Cameron.
She and Gatewood are in the process of writing a book on tourism which they hope to be complete in the next several years. This would be the second book for Cameron, who wrote a book published in 1996 by Greenwood Press, titled, “Dialectics in the Arts: The Rise of Experimentalism in American Music.”
While Cameron has spent much of her time the last few years studying tourism in the Caribbean, the Toronto native – who moved to Bethlehem in 1979 – has always been fascinated by tourism endeavors in her adopted home town. She began studying various aspects of the former steel town almost from the day she arrived.
Whether it’s the Turks and Caicos or Bethlehem, Cameron has a few words of caution for those who assume the study of tourism is like a day at the beach.
“People equate tourism with leisure and sometimes think if you study tourism and leisure, you’re studying fluff and enjoying yourself,” she said. “A lot of places which do ‘sun, sand and sea’ are currently heavily polluted, their reefs are dead, their beaches are littered, and tourists don’t go back. When you consider all the layers and impact of tourism it, ironically, is rather serious business and very hard work, as we have discovered these past few years.”