The Visitor Economy Regime

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Independent Curators International (ICI) recently posted a piece by Marina Reyes Franco, a recipient of the 2017 CPPC Travel Award. In “The Visitor Economy Regime,” she reflects on the “visitor economy” during her research trips to Panama, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad. Here are just a few excerpts; for full article and series of photographs, see ICI. [Many thanks to Michael O’Neale for bringing this item to our attention.]

On September 6th 2017, Hurricane Irma made her way through Puerto Rico, after having ravaged through most of the Leeward Islands, leaving some places simply uninhabitable and laying bare post colonial social structures of foreign privilege, local servitude, and the inescapable reality of climate change. That night I was almost a thousand kilometers away from home, in Port of Spain, the capital of the dual island nation of Trinidad & Tobago, and I didn’t even feel a breeze. Those of us glued to social media were treated to all kinds of apocalyptic images of destroyed homes, hospitals, schools, boats —and resort hotels. Overnight, the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people across the Caribbean islands was shattered along with their homes. Barbuda was left deserted for the first time in modern history. I was in Port of Spain for the first of my five CPPC Travel Award trips around the region, researching the cultural impact of tourism and the construction of ideas of paradise as it relates to art, exhibition-making, taxes, real estate, and the lives of artists and other cultural producers.

In Trinidad, however, I was mostly interested in the resignification of post military spaces after the US was forced out of Trinidad, specifically in the former US Navy base in Chaguaramas, and very curious about a Caribbean island living off an oil economy, as opposed to tourism. From my room at Alice Yard, the art space that was hosting me, I monitored the situation back home and felt a sense of relief when the hurricane veered north and most of the destruction was contained to the East. [. . .]

The first time I heard the term “visitor economy” was in 2014 when I returned to Puerto Rico to my very own kind of cultural shock after living in Argentina for 6 years. I’d left months before the housing crisis in the US exploded, and came back a few months before our 123 billion dollar debt was declared unpayable by then Governor Alejandro García Padilla. I returned to live in Old San Juan, the colonial town where I grew up, but this time the place had the look and feel of a plein air Airbnb, part boutique hotel town, part cruise ship day trippers’ nightmare of souvenir shops and outlet stores. Needless to say, I was angry. The “visitor economy” is a term mostly used in British or Australian tourism sectors to denote the economic activity -goods consumed and services rendered- by people who visit a place. This kind of economy takes into account a wide variety of touristic activity: medical, educational, business, cultural and artistic, agricultural, ecological, religious, sporting, literary, musical and artistic events, as well as people who own vacation homes or decide to retire there. The term permeates practically all aspects of life, transforming society to serve the visitor. Hospitals can be medical tourism destinations and university systems attract foreign students. The arts make a place a “great destination”, creating a permanent performance of culture and nationality in which spectacle is encouraged and the long-term sustainability of the artistic community is mostly neglected. The complex exercise of constantly seeing ourselves as how we think others perceive us is maddening.

This time around, I have experienced the Caribbean between two monstrous hurricanes that have forever altered the way we live. I wasn’t in Puerto Rico when Hurricane María hit either. I was at a conference in India and finally made it back home after being stranded in New York for 4 days. During those days, I spent my time making sure friends and family were okay, buying supplies to take back home and doing volunteer work with other Puerto Ricans in the diaspora.

[. . .] The history of many countries in the Caribbean will be understood as before and after this moment. We have realized that the answers to our problems lay within us and our communities – both at home and abroad. During my first night in Trinidad, Christopher Cozier took me to see Fiesta Plaza in Movie Towne. The mall recreates the long demolished architecture of Port Of Spain and longs to attract more local visitors and tourists with a planned but delayed expansion that would see the construction of a theme park in the sea front. Fiesta Plaza also features a plaza-like atmosphere and a stage for musical performances. The other possible plan -proposed by another government admin- would transform the property in the back into a luxury hospital/spa and recovery center. I’m wondering if the dip in oil prices and economic recession will make Trinidad seek development of their ignored tourism sector.

In contrast to the rest of the Caribbean islands, Trinidad is dependent on an oil economy. The island has developed tourism plans as a way to diverse the economy, but they’re not really implemented. With the economic downturn the island is experiencing due to low oil and natural gas prices, it’s becoming imperative that the country find alternative industries to develop. Right now, the tourism industry is mostly business related, with Trinidad, as the bigger island with more infrastructure, serving as a regional conference hub. [. . .]

Marina Reyes Franco is an art historian and independent curator, as well as co-founder and director of La Ene, an independent project space in Buenos Aires. She has contributed to various publications as writer and editor, and curated exhibitions focused on contemporary Latin American art in Puerto Rico, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and the United States. Her interests include post-colonial theory, the creation of alternative institutions, and artistic and literary manifestations in the frontier of political action.

For full article, see http://curatorsintl.org/research/the-visitor-economy-regime

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