Editorial | The larger truth of Mr Rifai’s intervention
Given the proliferation of all-inclusive hotels in Jamaica, Taleb Rifai should have anticipated the sensitivity of industry officials to any criticism, real or imagined, of that model of tourism and, therefore, should have anticipated the backlash to his call last week for greater social and economic inclusiveness from the sector.
It turned out that to assuage ruffled Jamaicans, Mr Rifai, the outgoing secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, bristled over a bit of media coverage of his speech, while walking back some of the language, including his reference to a "plantation-style" industry.
"Let me clarify this once and for all. I have great, great respect for all-inclusive resorts ... and all the good people who came and invested and changed lives and changed destinies and developed areas of this country and many, many parts around the world, not just this country," he explained.
Yet, while Mr Rifai, by his choice of words, may have, in the circumstances, left a bit too much room for interpretation, he said nothing wrong. Rather, not only was his speech appropriate to the context of the conference, which was put on by the UNWTO and the Jamaican Government, but in several respects, it echoed the concerns of many societal stakeholders, including this newspaper.
In that regard, we hope that any contretemps that emerged from Mr Rifai's remarks didn't perversely colour the final declarations from the conference or cause the Jamaican Government to retreat from the mission encapsulated in the conference's theme of jobs and inclusive growth. That theme was chosen against the backdrop of the United Nations' 2030 development agenda of eradicating poverty in an environment of narrowed disparities, peace, and social inclusion.
It is in that context that Mr Rifai called for greater community involvement in tourism and the elimination of "walls between the visitor and the community".
"We can't let our visitors live in bubbles. That is not acceptable anymore," he said, adding that it was not feasible to have five-star resorts in three-star communities.
We interpreted neither wall nor bubble to be literal, but rather as metaphors for the too-wide chasm that exists between tourism and its host communities, not only in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Indeed, tourism has proved its resilience as a great contributor to Caribbean economies. In Jamaica, it directly employs around 40,000 people and grosses over US$2 billion a year for the economy. It has improved the quality of life of many people. But it faces many challenges, not the least of which is climate change, which threatens the assets - sand and sea - on which Caribbean industry rests. Further, it didn't require Mr Rifai to warn us about maintaining five-star resorts in suboptimum communities. In too many instances, these communities are of no star at all.
For as this newspaper observed before Mr Rifai spoke: "The squalor of the informal communities in which many tourism workers live, not far from posh resorts, tells its own stories of a shortfall in inclusiveness."
We can, and ought to, have these conversations without it being perceived as an assault on all-inclusives, which should have a full and rightful place in a broad mix of tourism accommodations. As Mr Rifai said, such issues have to be "addressed with great courage and conviction", because at the end of the day, "it is all about people". It is precisely for this reason that Ed Bartlett, the tourism minister, was eager to put Jamaica's resources behind the Montego Bay conference.