Tuesday, July 08, 2008

More on Barbados

Back to Barbados. Spending time there was a truly fascinating experience because unlike some islands, the resorts are basically interspersed throughout the local communities. To not interact with the people there you'd have to stay locked away in your hotel. (Plus, you'd miss a delicious night of eating and dancing when the locals and tourists mingle for a Fish Fry and all night entertainment at the fish market in Oistins.) To the untrained eye, some of Barbados may look incredably poor- the houses are very small and very ramshackle, and, my God, some of the people have animals! But I was interested so I peaked and peaked and peaked some more the entire time we were there and came away with the impression that the small houses have much more to do with the culture and the price of property on a small island than they have to do with poverty.

From what I saw of the south, the interior of the island, the west coast, and the east coast, there aren't any poor neighborhoods - the super rich live on the west coast and the east coast is home to some nice properties, but mostly, the island is very similar. The small what-are-called chattel houses are intermixed with larger properties whose walls and fences reminded me a bit of a middle class southwestern home. (The name chattel house is a bit misleading as it has nothing to do with slavery. In fact, it's what the house is called because dating back to the post-slavery era, renters rented the land they lived in, but built their own homes. These homes could be easily assembled and disassembled, in case there was a need to move.)

According to one of our tour guides, the ramshackle nature of some of the houses were efforts on the part of home owners to avoid taxes, as taxes did not have to be paid on homes under construction- apparently, construction included the paint job on the house. And this explanation made sense, as the number of partial constructions and unpainted houses seemed to follow no pattern throughout the island. Some big homes were unfinished and rather ugly looking while some small homes were brightly painted and visa versa.

But most revealing were the glances at the houses as we drove by. The furniture in many of them was nice- I dunno how nice, but nicer than what I have given that I don't really have and can't afford any furniture. I saw couches and nicely set up tables, and perhaps the greatest sign of modest wealth, RCA dish network and Direct TV satellite dishes.

For myself, the lesson was that for an island of 280,000, the benefits of tourism are vast. According to Wikipedia, 10 % of the population is employed in the tourism industry, but even this figure neglects the number of people working in a retail industry that benefits greatly from the influx of tourists. As I noted in my last post, the more wealthy people that spend money on the island, the greater the benefits for all the people in those industries that cater to the wealthy tourists.

Even as a libertarian, I've always had this notion in the back of my head that there was a real problem with turning someone's beautiful island home into an expensive resort. What really changed my mind was the people we met on our trip- Stephen and Kim, the bellmen, Wayne, Chris, and Livingston the taxi drivers, and the numerous waiters and waitresses. The faces we saw weren't those of resentment, but those who appreciated our being there precisely because our being there enabled them to make a decent living. It was a confirmation of what's been in my head since I was in college. Capitalism works, markets work, and trade works. Openness between cultures works and we are better off because of our interactions. Discussions of issues like poverty and trade policy can be so sterile and impersonal, but actually getting a chance to meet people as individuals and see how other people live ... it's just priceless, and maybe it's the best indicator of just how the world should be.


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