by Polly Pattullo, journalist, specialising on the Caribbean region

It is said that the Prime Minister of Antigua, a man of enormous height and girth, was once banned from Club Antigua, one of the island’s all-inclusive hotels, by a zealous security guard, who, not recognising him, refused him entry because he had no pass. The opposition newspaper, not usually a friend of the PM, commented dryly that once the people of Antigua had to have a pass “to be out of doors after the ringing of a church bell at night”.

In St Lucia, where eight out of the 12 major hotels are all-inclusive, a calypso entitled Alien, with its chorus line “Like an alien in we own land”, caught the public imagination. It began,

"All-inclusives tax elusives,
And truth is,
They’re sucking up we juices,
Buying up every strip of beach,
Every treasured spot they reach."

The calypso’s sentiments were endorsed by St Lucians of all classes: by the fishermen whose access to beaches became barred, by entrepreneurs who discovered that all-inclusive tourists didn’t patronise their restaurants or shops, and by the local elite who couldn’t nip into an all-inclusive for a cocktail. Whatever their popularity with airlines and tour operators, all-inclusives somehow appeared less all-inclusive, more all-excluding.

While hotel ownership (in all shapes and sizes) in places such as Jamaica and Barbados has significantly passed into local hands, other islands, such as Antigua, have little control over their most crucial industry. As the leader of Antigua’s opposition party says: “Most of the progress has come from tourism, but it is not in our hands. We can’t lay a foundation on which we benefit.” This may be sour grapes in not winning the election, but the facts suggest that he is right There, 90 per cent of resorts are owned by foreigners and there are few locals in top hotel management.

What Antigua and other Caribbean islands with a mass-market tourism know now, the people of Dominica (no international airport, few white-sand beaches) have yet to find out. For example, the villagers of Vielle Case - an isolated settlement on the rugged north coast, surrounded by banana gardens, rainforest and the Atlantic below - rarely see a tourist. Even the adventurous ones do not penetrate that far along the pot-holed access road. So the people of Vielle Case are not, for the moment, waiters, hair-braiders, or taxi-drivers; they do not sell duty-free Columbian emeralds or T-shirts printed with Vielle Case Jammin’; their young men do not sell drugs or go with young white women.

Yet even these farmers and fishermen are gearing themselves up for tourism. At one village council meeting, the ideas poured out as to what the village might offer tourists and how the rootsmen could earn some dollars. For the Dominica government now sees tourism as one way out of a fragile dependency on bananas. Dominica is not alone: every government in the Caribbean has identified tourism as the region’s “engine of growth”.

So the numbers of tourists have rocketed: from 5.5 million stay-over visitors in 1974 to 13.7 million two decades later. From Cuba to Guyana, the Caribbean as a whole is more dependent on tourism (and increasingly so) than any other region in the world.

For it is both the Caribbean’s fortune - and misfortune - to conjure up the image of paradise in the western imagination. To attract hotel investors, tour operators and airlines, Caribbean governments must provide a breeze-kissed environment swept clean of hurricane damage, unsightliness, poverty and crime. And, above all, its people must smile.

So, to a great extent, the region’s tourist industry is forced to organise itself on other people’s terms (some have labelled tourism the “new plantocracy”). And once the tourist enclaves form, the raw nerve endings of Caribbean societies are exposed. As the secretary-general of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, Jean Holder, says: “There appears to be a deep-seated resentment of the industry at every level of society.” Holder believes the root of this problem stems from race, colonialism and slavery. Disaffection among hotel staff is sometimes expressed in such terms. A hotel nurse, for example, told me how the staff had to eat their lunch under a tree, “like we were back in massa’s time”.

The gulf between visitor and local becomes even more acute when hotels import supplies, ignoring the society outside the perimeter fence except as a source of labour. Too few farmers, for example, sell their produce to hotels and many tourists eat only American tomatoes and Hawaiian pineapples (two honourable exceptions are Jamaica and Nevis where schemes to link local farmers and hotels have been consciously developed). History is once again partly responsible. Agriculture is export-orientated and always has been.

Examples of an alternative, "new" tourism, in which the industry is integrated with other sectors of the economy and based on local need rather than external demand, were pioneered in the 1970s, first by Michael Manley, then Prime Minister of Jamaica, and later by Maurice Bishop in Grenada. Their attempts foundered, in part because antagonistic American governments, in the context of cold-war politics, encouraged tourists to stay away.

In a more conservative climate, the emphasis among Caribbean governments has been to develop mainstream tourism, to improve the arrival statistics (which inevitably has a social and environmental impact) with marketing campaigns and so fuel that “engine of growth”.

Those who still urge an alternative way do so in the hope that the people of Vielle Case - and all those other communities newly drawn into the tourism web - will not one day have to compose their own versions of Alien.