Monday, December 22, 2014

All-inclusive tourist traps: Jamaica Edition

First off, this post isn't going to be about food. There aren't going to be glamour shots of limp resort food or faux local restaurants--the TGI Fridays of Jamaica. This is about a humid swamp of soggy cannoli and slowly ripening cream for your coffee. This post is about tourism, and it’s about what it means to me to travel.

I spent five days with some fun friends at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica--water slides, private beaches, pools and all-you-can-eat restaurants. It was everything you could expect from an American-style all-inclusive resort. I'll be honest: it's not my ideal type of vacation, but it was a short, relaxing holiday with a large group of friends. In that, it did not fail to please. Rum flowed, food was plentiful, and the most important decision of the day was should we go to the hot tub now or later?

But beyond the simplicity of life in an all-inclusive resort, there is another, largely unexamined layer to this most American of constructs.

When we make American clothes in Malaysia and cheap plastic trinkets in China, we employ people making a few dollars a day to work long hours in sweatshops to save us money. All-inclusive resorts feel the same way. You aren't experiencing another culture; you’re bringing American all-you can eat restaurants, Zumba, golf courses, and “All About That Bass” to somewhere where you can pay waitstaff, bartenders, porters, and maids practically nothing to save gobs of money. It's the American way! We aren't really traveling. We're paying less for America Light.

While I was in Jamaica, President Obama announced that he was normalizing relations with Cuba. Regular tourist visas are not available yet, but they will be soon. It was interesting to see the coverage of this story by the Jamaican and Canadian news services alongside the American ones. The Jamaicans are concerned about losing tourist dollars to Cuba, while the Canadians are worried about how much more expensive Cuba will become once Americans start showing up and demanding wi-fi, Zoomba and swim-up bars.

What is life like in an all-inclusive resort? Resort food for the most part is fast food without the attention to detail. Swim-up bars are attached to kiddie pools to combine the populations most likely to have accidents in the pool. Blended drinks' only saving grace is that they are likely made with Jamaican sugar rather then imported high fructose corn syrup. But then again we are in America Light, the land of the free and the home of government-subsidized corn production, so who knows.

The number of locals on an island who don't know how to swim blew my mind. Was this because almost all of the beaches are privately owned by resorts?

But there are diamonds in the rough. There are the warm and friendly staff who seem to be genuinely concerned with the tourists' happiness and want to make sure they are having a good time. Although the completely tip-driven system could easily explain the Jamaican attitude toward tourists, I met many genuinely happy and interesting people. Once you get to know the locals on a deeper level, the joy of living and seeing you happy still remains.

I ate a plate of Lima beans and smoked fish for breakfast that blew my mind. It was part of a buffet with 100 other items that were barely edible. When I took a scoop of it, one of the workers clarified that "no no man, that's Lima beans with smoked fish" clearly worried that I might not know what I was getting into. It was phenomenal, hands down the tastiest thing I ate the entire week.

What can you really learn about a people, a place, and a culture from an American all-inclusive resort? Maybe nothing; maybe understanding another culture or living another lifestyle can't be accomplished in a week-long vacation; or maybe that you should just sit back, relax, order another Pina Colada, and wait for lunch.


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