Tourism is one of the industries hit hardest by this coronavirus pandemic. Experts predict that foreign travel may take years to return. The BBC paints a picture of dystopian holidays full of sunbeds “separated by plexiglass” and robots roaming airports, spraying everything with sanitiser. As a result of these measures — and price rises — the British news organisation thinks staycations may become the new norm.
Business travel, too, has been decimated. The New York Times reports that travelling for work is changed for at least the medium term, and conferences may never come back in the same way.
In 2011, John Urry brought out a third edition of his 1990 book The Tourist Gaze. In it, he expanded his thesis about the importance of the visual in tourism, and the rise of the idea of sites deemed “worth seeing.” Adding a new concluding chapter, he questioned the tourism industry’s sustainability, suggesting that amid climate change it might already have passed its peak. Urry writes presciently of the illness and death associated with travel: “high rates of international mobility have generated new risks, such as ... Aids or SARS, which are diseases of mobilities of travellers and tourists, modern plagues.” This reminds me that York, the city where I work, was the first in the United Kingdom to experience Covid-19. In January, a relative visiting a Chinese student inadvertently — but without long-term consequences — brought in the virus.
Given the changed coronavirus landscape, Alain de Botton writes about “travel from your sofa.” Seeing the world is one of life’s great pleasures. However, we can use the mind, memories, and literature to roam far and wide without leaving the home, causing environmental damage or spreading disease. Let us venture, then, to the paradisiacal beaches of the Caribbean.
We first dive into Margaret Atwood’s 1981 novel Bodily Harm. Following treatment for breast cancer at a young age, journalist Rennie takes a break from her life to go to the fictional Caribbean island of St Antoine. As Urry observes, “tourist places are often full of the ill and the dying.” Since she goes partly to recuperate and partly to write a lifestyle piece, she floats in between the tourist’s “exempt” status and the somewhat more assimilated behaviour of longer-term white residents, such as fellow North American Lora.
Viewing local scenes through the tourist gaze of her camera, Rennie is regarded suspiciously by several islanders as a CIA operative. However, she is not American, but what one local politico, Dr Minnow, repeatedly terms a “sweet Canadian.” As such, she has a certain immunity from the controversies of UK and US (neo-)colonialism. Yet, rather than finding the “Fun in the Sun” she hopes to write about, Rennie gets caught up in the violence enveloping the country’s first election. At the novel’s climax, she is imprisoned by local revolutionaries, and her cellmate Lora is horrifically beaten and assaulted.
Though St Antoine is newly independent, the fusty hotel Rennie stays in till her incarceration, with its disapproving English manager, reeks of the island’s colonial past. Colonialism continues in new guises: the drugs trade, the trippers’ demands and the exploitative banana industry.
On her plane home, Rennie leafs through the in-flight magazine, Leisure. She is transfixed by “a picture of the sun, orange, with a smiling face, plump cheeks and a wink. Inside there are beaches, the sea, blue-green and incredible, bodies white and black, pink-brown, light brown, yellow-brown, some serving, others being served, serviced.”
As is often the case when Atwood deals with race and structural inequality in her fiction, white characters are serviced by the black and brown. The non-white voices form a chorus, above which the solos of the white characters ring out more resonantly. Though Dr Minnow has some potential as a character, he is pushed to the margins and eventually killed off. Most of the other Caribbean characters are pitiable or menacing, or both at the same time. Twice, St Antoine is described by inhabitants as an island where everyone knows everybody else’s business: “a small place.”
It is almost as if Jamaica Kincaid’s biting volume on tourism, A Small Place, published seven years later in 1988, is a direct retort to Atwood. Using the second-person mode of address, Kincaid writes of the tourist: “You see yourself taking a walk on that beach, you see yourself meeting new people (only they are new in a very limited way, for they are people just like you). You see yourself eating some delicious, locally grown food. You see yourself, you see yourself ...”
Just as the sun in Rennie’s magazine winks at her, as if letting her into an in-joke, in Kincaid’s imagination, tourism is a closed-off club for “people just like you.” People from her island of Antigua — “(black people)” — are excluded. They go to Hotel Training School to learn how to be “good servants.” They may be admired, like a “godlike” boy the tourist notices riding a windsurf board, but only from a nameless distance. The narcissism of the tourist seeing themselves in the picture-perfect beach scenes, and their lack of knowledge about indigenous mores, underscores Kincaid’s point that, while the tourist may be a “nice person” back home, here she is “an ugly human being.”
The tourist’s gaze at sights and sites through the frames of a camera’s lens or the window of a tour bus is reversed in Kincaid’s essay. Under the scrutiny of the “native”, your “pastrylike”, “putty-faced” appearance seems “strange” and your “manners” are found wanting. Antiguans “collapse helpless from laughter, mimicking the way they imagine you must look as you carry out some everyday bodily function.” Whereas Atwood’s Rennie had airily mused that “the Caribbean is becoming hostile to tourists”, Kincaid states categorically: “the people who inhabit the place ... cannot stand you.”
This has a great deal to do with the colonial past and the neocolonial present. Whereas the Antigua Kincaid grew up in “revolved almost completely around England”, these days
the young are obsessed with what she calls “the rubbish of North America.”
A Small Place is hard to read without a sense of outrage, of guilt. Covid-19 invites the urgent and radical rethinking of tourism that the Antiguan author called for over three decades ago. Perhaps the finest response to the thought “I must get away” — which Kincaid shows we all have — is to flee into the world of books.
The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 31st, 2020