On a recent trip to Jamaica, I found myself annoyed when the group I was with stopped at the local Margaritaville to get a taste of the “real” Jamaica. The beach was packed with beach chairs and cluttered with tourists who shelled out bundles of cash for slushy alcoholic drinks in plastic cups and strings of beads being sold by local hawkers.
I looked up and down the beach. Resorts lined the beach as far as I could see. Buildings that were several stories high faded into pools faded into beach bars faded into beach and then into the ocean.
After our stop at Margaritaville, we made our way to a tour operator that offered an array of activities, which included zip lining, horseback riding, quad tours and dog sledding. Though I enjoyed our dog sledding excursion, I pondered the absurdity of the experience. I could have been in any place in the world doing the exact same thing.
As we drove back to our own resort, I looked out the window at the passing homes and storefronts. People spilled out of the open-air bars and sat on the steps of the small shops.
That’s where I wanted to be: In the “real” Jamaica. I wanted the authentic experience.
The area with the local shops gradually faded into the stretch of town that housed the local bars and clubs and that slowly turned into the stretch of resorts in Montego Bay. I began questioning my desire to visit the “real” Jamaica and started to wonder what the “real” Jamaica really was.
I assumed that Jamaica as a whole was an “authentic” place with a culture defined on its own terms that has since had to accommodate the influx of fancy lodgings and expensive excursions that people need to entertain themselves. However, many of the people who work at and promote these places are Jamaican themselves. Does being affiliated with these seemingly “unauthentic” experiences and influences make them any less Jamaican? Their lives undoubtedly took a different path because of these resorts and tour providers. The island could have remained a void in the Caribbean Sea, but like many nations in the Caribbean, development and the resulting tourism has become extremely important to Jamaica.
Sure, their lives are different because of development, but does that make the country and these people any less Jamaican and any less “real?” Are Margaritaville and zip lining tours as much a part of the Jamaican culture as reggae and Bob Marley are? Do safaris through the Maasai Mara make Kenya any less of a nation or has the country and its people simply redefined themselves to incorporate the experience? When tourists are charged one price and locals another, has a distinction been made between one culture and another, or is the elevated price just a part of the ingrained culture?
I’ve explored the effect of cultural tourism on local communities in the past, and it continues to be a topic that haunts me as I travel. Because I am always an outsider when I go somewhere else, I always wonder if what I’m experiencing is real or simply a façade designed to make me feel like I’m witnessing something authentic.
I’m curious to know how others feel about this issue. What defines a culture to you, and is any experience an authentic one, regardless of how tacky or touristy it seems?