Sex tourism in the Caribbean

Sun, sea, sand and…?! Photo by mdanys/Creative Commons

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Why is the sex industry so inherent in Caribbean tourism? Saara Jaffery-Roberts, who spent a year in Cuba, examines the issue. Saara is studying International Development and Spanish at Leeds University.

Having lived in Cuba for a year, I witnessed firsthand and on a daily basis the negative effects that tourism can have on a country. Tourism is the backbone for many Caribbean economies that rely on the foreign capital and employment opportunities that it provides. It is also promoted as a key strategy to lift developing countries out of poverty, and create a “virtuous circle of growth”, benefiting both the economy and the society alike.

But, at heart, the tourist industry is a profit making business, which depends on the unequal relationship between consumers and producers; the former being the Global North, and the latter being the Global South.

The global tourist industry and development institutions focus on the Caribbean’s natural assets of sun, sea, and sand, as a way to attract people to the region. But they avoid the fourth ‘s’: sex, and the question of sex tourism. Given the size of the underground sex industry –  a multibillion dollar transnational industry creating multiple employment opportunities – sex tourism is undeniably a reality which affects several lives.

How then does sex tourism develop within international tourism, and why?

There are two sides to this story. The tourist industry both marginalises and deskills Caribbean people from any meaningful role in their country’s development, and at the same time creates a particular tourist demand for the region which largely centres on the bodies and sexuality of Caribbean women and men.

The first point is related to structural adjustment and ‘the opening up’ of Caribbean economies due to neoliberal reform. This has meant that the region has become economically competitive on the international arena. Subsequently, Caribbean economies aim to attract foreign investments as much as possible, as to generate economic growth and sustain high profits.

Photo by lyng883/Creative Commons

It is true that the tourist industry provides many employment opportunities. For example, in the Dominican Republic tourism is the largest form of national employment, and in Jamaica, one in four people work in the sector. But the tourist industry relies on low-cost, low-skilled, female-based labour in order to remain competitive and keep production costs low. Globally, workers in the tourist industry earn 20% less than in other sectors, and are subject to poor working conditions.  The industry favours women because they are assumed to be more docile, which means there is less of a chance of them unionising and demanding higher pay. Men, on the other hand, are largely excluded from formal employment, and many find it increasingly difficult to find a job.

Due to this, both women and men are sidelined from the tourist sector and have little opportunity for meaningful employment. They turn to sex work as a way to earn hard currency and make ends meet. Also, since demand from tourists is high, sex work becomes a lucrative path to make more money than would be made in other sectors. Although it may not have been intentional, a niche in the market is created, in which Caribbean women and men are in the position to cater to tourist demand.

Tourist desire is the other part of the equation. International tourism produces a consumer approach to local, natural and cultural resources. Regions, cultures, landscapes and ‘experiences’ therefore become commodities – products to sell. Advertising, films, travel guides and other media paint a certain picture of the Caribbean as to encourage people to want to go there. Competition is high, so the industry uses strategies as to make each country ‘different’ from another. Fantasy, ideals and dreams all form part of the tourist ‘package’.

Inevitably, then, sex tourism has become integral to Caribbean tourism. Many tourists travel there with certain expectations in mind regarding the sexuality and nature of the locals; consequently, the region becomes a playground in which Western tourists can explore their curiosities and fantasies. Sex tourism is therefore the result of a particular ‘desire’ for the islands and its people, coupled with a large number of Caribbean women and men who have little option but to cater to that desire.

Given that the The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) predicts that tourist arrivals will reach the milestone one billion mark later this year, it is more important than ever to critically ask who is being exploited in the process.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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