Locals’ happiness: the missing measurement in Caribbean tourism development

Should the happiness of locals be a part of Caribbean tourism packages always crafted around the satisfaction of potential visitors?
"Mayores" dancing in a Gaga in San Luis, a rural community in Dominican Republic Photo by Alfonso Lomba (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)

Despite the importance of tourism for a number of economies, local residents of many destinations across the globe have voiced their discontent with tourism development. For them, quality of life – and, in particular, happiness – is more important.

Tourism as an industry has positive and negative impacts on national development. Poverty reduction in developing countries as well as a positive change in a destination’s international image are among the more welcome impacts. Still, the tourism sector can be the main factor in the destruction of tangible and intangible local heritage and culture, and the disruption of wildlife.

The happiness of the local residents is also impacted by tourism. The quality of life of local populations can heavily influence tourism’s contribution to both visitors’ and residents’ enjoyment of the destination.

In the Caribbean, tourism is a major industry. According to the 2017 World Travel and Tourism Council report, 30.1 million tourists visited the Caribbean, contributing directly to about 4.5% of the GDP in the region. It is no surprise that the region invests heavily in its idyllic image.

But the question remains, should Caribbean countries place equal focus on ensuring their populations’ happiness when developing their tourism plans?

Happiness and tourism

The World Happiness Report, first published in 2012, uses happiness as an important measure of social progress. Before, its relevance was not taken into account. The Report looks at factors such as freedom, income and good governance which all contribute to local residents’ wellbeing.

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In their paper “2016 Happiness Survey, Aruba Happiness and Tourism” Croes et al argued that the level of happiness of the local residents of a destination contributes to the good performance of the destination. They also argued that destinations must become facilitators of happiness for local residents

When local residents perceive the positive impacts of tourism, satisfaction with life increases too. However, when residents only perceive the negative impacts of tourism, their sense of health and safety decreases as a result.

For example, in Aruba, 79% of local residents surveyed were happy with their quality of life. Aruba even branded itself as “One Happy Island” and has now joined “The Big 6” destinations in the Caribbean, alongside regional giants Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.

One happy region?

Nevertheless, not all destinations in the Caribbean have a positive image. Some destinations are struggling in their endeavour to become fully fledged, attractive destinations.

For many touristic authorities, the number of visitors, industry generated income, natural and built attractions (beaches, mountains, castles, museums), facilities and tourism policies all contribute to the success of a destination. Yet, the human factor in the performance of a destination is not taken into consideration. Tourism development in Haiti is an example why this should be included.

A look at the tourism sector in Haiti

Haiti, a post-colonial, post-conflict and post-disaster destination, started its tourism venture in the 1930s but has never actually managed to significantly reduce its level of poverty and improve its image; let alone engage the country toward positive economic development.

In his article on tourism development in Haiti, Louis Dupont suggests that there is a one-way relationship between economic development, poverty alleviation and tourism development. For him, the economic development of a country and the reduction of poverty will trigger tourism development and not the other way around.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Jan. 16, 2010) Haitian earthquake victims in a tent city wait for medical treatment from U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard personnel. Several U.S. military units, including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17 are conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations as part of Operation Unified Response after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused severe damage near Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adrian White/Released) Public Domain Mark 1.0

This is further supported in the Seraphin et al paper on improving Haiti’s tourism industry, which found that Haiti’s tourism sector’s poor performance is due to an absence of leadership and a sense of community, while Haitians’ basic human needs (food, education) are yet to be fully met.

The local population matters too

Satisfying local population needs is a key ingredient to the success of the tourism industry, yet Haitians are still facing unfavourable living conditions. Recent events, like the July 2018 fuel price hike, show how difficult conditions are for its citizens.

According to Channel News Asia, on the 6th of July 2018 Jovenel Moise, the President of the Republic of Haiti, announced that fuel prices would rise as a part of International Monetary Fund (IMF) endorsed modernisation measures. Following this, mass protests erupted in Haiti.

Hundreds of tourists found themselves trapped in hotels, and airlines cancelled their flights in and out Haiti. There was even an attempt by rioters to set fire to Royal Oasis Hotel, Haiti’s first premier and internationally acclaimed hotel.

Unfavourable living conditions for Haitians placed the tourism industry on the backburner for the local population. Despite all its efforts to boost it, the tourism industry is still not a significant driving force in Haiti, because its citizens are yet to experience a comfortable quality of life.  

Do happiness and tourism have a future in the Caribbean?

Based on the examples of Aruba and Haiti, it can be suggested that there is a one-way relationship between local residents’ happiness and sustainable tourism development. Both Haiti and Aruba also provide evidence that it is extremely important for Caribbean destinations to consider local residents’ happiness when designing their Destination Management Strategic Plan.

Thus far, Aruba is the only Caribbean destination to use ‘happiness’ to assess its tourism performance. It is not likely to be the case for all destinations in the Caribbean, however. Based on the variety of political regimes in the region, as well as the social and economic levels of development, countries like Cuba and the Dominican Republic may hesitate to include happiness as a determining factor as they might lose their current leading position or be seen as a low performing destination.

Meeting the needs of local residents should be equally important as meeting the needs of visitors to ensure a strong tourism sector. They are both key stakeholders for the sustainability of the tourism industry in the region. It can be said that the Caribbean and its people is still in pursuit of happiness.

Caribbean destinations’ performance (click to enlarge) Source: Seraphin et al, 2018

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Caribbean Connections
Hugues Séraphin

Hugues was born in Martinique and studied Tourism Management at the Université de Perpignan Via Domitia (France). He holds a PhD from the same university. Hugues Seraphin, is currently a Senior Lecturer in Event and Tourism Management Studies at the University of Winchester (England).
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