Forget about Instagram Travel Influencers, single use plastic water bottles and affordable AirBnBs. The creation and destruction of America’s Paradise is a story of tourism’s impact on a Place!
It’s happening around the World. Tourism has fueled explosive growth in transportation, accommodations/hotels/real estate/housing, restaurants, bars, services and tours. All of this “attention” has exposed the consequences of tourism; including economic dependence, affects on nature and natural resources, and the social and cultural impact on popular destinations. We are literally destroying the very places we love.
For decades, American’s have flocked to America’s Paradise, the US Virgin Islands. The US purchased the Danish West Indies from Denmark on March 31, 1917 for $25 million dollars. With that transfer, the islands became a colonial possession of the United States. As such, Virgin Islands residents are caught in a limbo – they do not vote in US elections; and travel to the Territory, by US citizens, does not require a passport. That ease of travel combined with beautiful beaches and tropical weather made the newly acquired possession the perfect destination for American tourism. And the US Virgin Islands reliance on tourism was born.
Like footprints on a sandy beach – everything we do leaves a trace. Knowing and recognizing your travel footprint will help you to connect with your destination, lessen your impact and support sustainable tourism [ regardless of your destination ].
Some of the unintended effects are … Gentrification: making it difficult or impossible for local residents to find affordable housing, buy land, fuel and food costs, etc. Impact on nature and natural resources. Even the most thoughtful visitors, in large numbers, can cause damage to the very thing they came to see and experience. Trails can cause erosion. Snorkelers impact coral, reef fish and marine life. Boat anchors tear up the seagrass beds. Litter … especially plastics … make their way into the ecosystem. Building all of the infrastructure to support visitors … produces its own issues including the destruction of habitats, soil and ground water contamination, and air pollution.
People: It’s easy to forget you’re a guest in another person’s home! Sun and fun doesn’t have to mean a disregard for local customs. Respect goes a long way in the Virgin Islands. Your “vibe” can easily make you friends or result in a local rebuke, “sucking-teeth” [ chups ].
Music: In the US Virgin Islands – Your favorite country song is drowning out the local sounds of soca, steel drums and calypso. Hearing, experiencing and enjoying local music by local musicians are the types of memories that last a life time.
Food: There’s a world of local foods and drinks to try. Make the most of your vacation / travel by sampling regional foods made with fresh local ingredients! Try something you’ve never had before. You’ll come away with a wider appreciation for the local culture and bonus – more memories to take home.
We’d like to share a “Letter” written and shared on social media by a woman with a foot on each side of the cultural divide that defines the relationship between the US and the US Virgin Islands. Her tone conveys the frustration of local people; while providing visitors with a context with which to begin to understand how tourism, and in particular each of our footprints, leaves a mark on the destinations we love to visit.
With kindness and respect, I’d like to offer STJ visitors some perspective.
I grew up in CT until I was 10 when my mother moved to the VI. When I was 13 (in 1983) she had a West Indian boyfriend. Her relationship introduced me to West Indian culture and for the next several decades, my understanding, perspective and love for West Indian people and culture grew. My life here has a deeper understanding than I might have had otherwise, ie as a ‘visitor’ or tourist or even ‘vacationer-turned-home owner’. There’s something very hard for tourists to understand and for locals to convey without frustration. I see it over and over in these ‘STJ’ [Facebook ] groups. It’s a little (or a lot) like prostitution and tourists are like the ‘John’ getting what they came for. Maybe crude, but true. So yes, locals might earn a tourist dollar, but they feel disrespected at the same time. Try to understand that most Americans come here with no interest in West Indian culture. They simply ‘take’ what they want experience-wise and use the place like a commodity to be purchased. The frustration and anger coming from locals in these groups reflects their exhaustion. They are fed up and many would not mind at all if tourists stopped coming altogether. Tourism dollars are appreciated but not if locals have to pay the (higher) price of cultural ignorance and disrespect that Americans bring with them. Tourists don’t even see themselves- they don’t see their ignorance and disrespect because they make no attempt to understand or learn the culture here. Just because this is a US territory, ie ‘owned’ by the US, that does not mean this place is rooted in American culture-it’s NOT, at all. Property managers, real estate agents and stateside villa owners have not done enough (or anything at all) to help tourists understand this culture. So it’s not entirely your fault that you are hurt and confused. Most tourists and visitors have no clue why the get the cold shoulder from locals. My suggestion is to ask what customs you need to understand (starting with how to properly greet locals here) and seek some level of understanding of West Indian culture. This is a tight knit place. When you come here think of it as going to someone’s house for dinner- you wouldn’t just show up, eat the food and leave right? That would be rude. You would make conversation, get to know your host, show respect and gratitude. And please don’t expect native locals to be grateful that you are here. Please start with your gratitude for being here. When the governor closed the doors here for 2 months most people were happy for the ‘break’ from tourism. I mean that in a constructive way – understand that locals are TIRED of the continuous ignorance. Americans come here with an attitude of “I paid for my vacation, now fulfill my expectations” and that’s fine, but then those tourists should not be surprised when they are largely ignored or rejected by locals. You get what you give in terms of love and compassion. Money, tourism dollars or real estate investor dollars, does NOT buy harmony with this culture. when you are on vacation here, ask what are the local West Indian customs that you should respect, give patronage to West Indian businesses, and and above all be patient, listen, seek to understand.
I hope this helps. Peace ✌️
Author – “Bean” Bruno
Respect the people and place you are visiting!
This one should be easy – but it’s the most complicated. As we plan and pack for our getaways – I think we lose sight of the bigger picture. Travel means visiting someplace that’s not our home. The beautiful beaches are home to people caught in a Territorial limbo. Keep reading to discover ways to show respect and be a good global citizen as you travel.
Greetings – A local custom and great way to start every meeting is with a “Good morning”, “Good afternoon” or “Good evening”. Leave out this introduction and you’ll start out on the wrong foot.
Beach Wear No-Nos! Swimsuits on the beach, OK. But cover up for shopping, bars and restaurants and travel.
Culture First – Support local music, food, culture and customs.
Island Life has a different pace, a slower pace. Slow down. Relax. It’s why you’re on vacation.
Resources: Water, power, food, fuel. They are all VERY EXPENSIVE on the islands. Conserve whenever possible. Shorter showers and less A/C …
Reef-Safe Suncreen – The US Virgin Islands banned sunscreens that contain ingredients harmful to coral reefs and marine life. It’s the law … but it’s also a really good way to respect the Island.
Respect: Understand the historic and cultural significance of the island’s plantation-era ruins! The ruins atop Fortsberg, site of the 1733 Slave Revolt, are a place of great historical significance and source of pride.
Respect: The plants, wildlife, historic structures, St John’s hiking trails, St John’s coral reefs and marine ecosystems as well as the sea creatures that live there.
Glass Containers: Glass bottles and containers are prohibited inside the National Park. Park Rangers do inspect coolers.
Plastics : Plastic bags, 6 pack rings, and other types of plastics aren’t just litter. Sea turtles eat sea weed and jelly fish … and plastics can resemble these food items. The result is often death by starvation and/or entanglement.
Drones: Drones are prohibited from flying in the Virgin Islands National Park. Park Rangers do enforce this regulation. Be respectful of residents and visitors enjoying beaches, homes, vacation rentals and the island’s sights and sounds. Don’t let your desire for some cool vacation video impact other people’s right to enjoy the Island’s beauty!
Donkeys + Sea Turtles: Sure they’re cute – but they’re also wild! Visitors are asked not to feed or touch donkeys and sea turtles or any wildlife/marine life – in or outside the Park.
St John Historical Society – A treasure trove of historical documents, photos and interesting articles about St John’s history. Nurture that hidden history geek in yourself and gain a greater understanding of the slave-era plantations ruins and petroglyphs seen across the island. Visit their site: St John Historical Society
St John – Life in Five Quarters. This 200+ page book of local stories, pictures, and history includes accounts of prominent people and notable places, firsthand descriptions of earlier ways of life on St John, fact-based histories of estate ‘ruins’ we have rambled, and an impressive collection of interesting and beautiful images and photos, many of which have never been previously published. ePub available for download
Night of the Silent Drums: A Narrative of Slave Rebellion on the Virgin Islands – by John L. Anderson
Cruz Bay from Conquest to Exploitation, a Forgotten History – by David Knight, Sr.
St. John People: Stories about St. John residents by St. John residents – by Cap’n Fatty Goodlander