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Familiar faces from abroad: Diaspora tourism in the Caribbean



To boost their tourist industries, Caribbean countries are looking for new opportunities closer to home — among families and friends in the Caribbean diaspora.

Although many of its countries face deeply entrenched problems, much of the Caribbean region is blessed with a mainstay industry that other parts of the world can only dream of attaining: tourism.

In recent decades the Caribbean tourist trade has grown rapidly, largely thanks to an increase in cruise ship traffic and all-inclusive resort packages. But this  growth has suffered setbacks. For example, the shift toward mass tourism has reduced domestic involvement in the industry and consequently limited benefits to host countries. In some Caribbean countries, meanwhile, high crime rates have discouraged visitors. And the region overall has been affected by the international financial crisis, which has curbed discretionary travel worldwide. 

In other words, while Caribbean nations have been doing quite well from tourism, they could be doing even better. Research was needed to find strategies that would strengthen the industry’s competitiveness, diversify beyond its traditional target markets, and distribute its benefits more widely.  

Millions overlooked

One line of inquiry was to explore the prospects for mobilizing the economic power of a group with strong and deep connections to the region — Caribbean people living abroad. This category had often been overlooked, both by researchers and by entrepreneurs, because its members had seldom been regarded as tourists at all, but simply as “friends and family.”

In fact the Caribbean diaspora is by no means a negligible group, even when compared with the size of the home population. Between 1965 and 2000 about 12% of the region’s labour force moved to Canada and other industrialized countries, making the Caribbean the world’s largest per capita source of emigrants. Altogether, millions of Caribbean natives, or their descendants, live in global cities abroad. 

Development impacts

Supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and other donors, researchers at the University of the West Indies (Cave Hill campus in Barbados) and at Ottawa’s Carleton University conducted an ambitious multi-country investigation of the economic impact of these transplanted communities. Case studies focused on Dominicans in New York — where, amazingly, they constitute 9% of that city’s population — Jamaicans in London, Surinamese in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, and Guyanese in Toronto.

Typically, emigrants contribute to their home countries through the “five T” channels: transportation, telecommunications, trade, remittance transfers, and tourism. Researchers concentrated on the development impacts of two mobile populations: professionals and other skilled workers who migrate back to the region (“brain circulation”), and diaspora members engaged in tourism and investment. 

In the case of diaspora tourism, the researchers set out to measure its nature and scope, particularly its impact on the homeland economies in terms of employment growth, foreign exchange earnings, and income distribution. They explored such questions as the potential for strengthening the sector through free trade agreements or improved telecommunication.

Diverse stakeholders

Research findings have been rich and subtle, and suggest good prospects for crafting effective policies to enhance tourism. 

The case studies determined, for example, that diaspora tourists already have a significant impact on the economies of Caribbean countries. These travelers constitute a substantial portion of total tourist arrivals — in the case of Guyana and Suriname, for example, nearly two-thirds. 

Another striking discovery was that diaspora tourism supports a remarkably wide range of stakeholders. It helps sustain “enablers and facilitators” such as remittance firms, tour operators, telecommunication companies, hoteliers, airlines, even newspapers that serve emigrants. And of course it sustains tourists themselves, whether they are pigeonholed as “cultural,” “festival,” “eco,” “medical,” or any number of other categories. In other words, a great many people and institutions have an interest in improving diasporic tourism.

Typical tourists

Diaspora members, it turns out, return home not just for sun and relaxation, but also to invest and do business, to improve education, to establish a new residence, to attend festivals or family events such as weddings or funerals, and — especially in the case of second and third generations — to find out more about Caribbean heritage and lineage. As one tourist put it, his reason for returning was “to learn about my cultural baggage.” 

One conclusion with implications for fine-tuning services was that the typical tourist profile shifts over generations. First-generation emigrants who return tend to lodge with friends or family, to travel locally rather than explore the country, and to favour indigenous cuisine and shopping. Later generations — which have higher incomes and are not so close to the homeland communities — are more likely to stay in commercial accommodation and to book outings related to history and heritage. 

Forward Home

A noteworthy outcome of the project has been the production — at IDRC’s suggestion — of a 50-minute documentary video designed to publicize the issues. Launched at the Caribbean Tales Film Festival in Toronto in 2011, Forward Home: the Power of the Caribbean Diaspora, paints a vivid picture of the Caribbean expatriate community’s economic impact. The film includes footage and interviews from all the case-study countries and cities.

Photo: flickr/Anthony DeFreitas

Learn more about diaspora tourism and research on the issue:

Identity links   There is a tendency to think that diaspora tourists will always come, that we don’t have to market to them, that we don’t have to entice them, that we don’t have to plan for them. That is not true, because they operate in market spaces that are very competitive. Our advantage is that they have identity links to the region. Unless we begin to strategize about this target market, and target them in a more sophisticated way, we may begin to lose this market share.
project leader Keith Nurse, The University of the West Indies (Cave Hill campus, Barbados). An extract from the documentary, Forward Home.