Paradise Islands: What Is Hidden Between the Lines of Tourism Marketing Copy?

March 31, 2012 by  Filed under: Marketing 

Barbados may be small but it has a lot of heart for a little island, projecting the characteristic and indomitable charisma of its people far onto the world stage. At just 14 miles wide and 21 long, you’ll be surprised at the amount of holiday and cultural entertainment that can be crammed into this compact island paradise.

So far, so much like a thousand pieces of promotional copy that you might have read, promoting the joys of a holiday to Barbados. Whilst I am not saying that a holiday to such a place would not be enjoyable, I am just saying that briefly, let us think a little more critically about the context from which a linguistic framing like this emerges, what about Barbados it hides and what it reveals.

The notion of an island paradise is a little flattening in terms of the way in which it serves to reduce the culture of a place to the projected notions of an outside viewer, indeed causing the island’s inhabitants to perceive themselves through the framing of an external ‘Western’ tourist gaze. This is the gaze that demarcates them as ‘other’, and the island as ‘out of the ordinary’ 1 for the Western visitor. This is precisely the constitution of the tourist relation as John Urry identifies in his seminal study on the cultural phenomenon of modern tourism. Urry, quotes Jonathan Culler in arguing that ‘the tourist is interested in everything as a sign of itself… All over the world the unsung armies of semioticians, the tourists, are fanning out in search of the signs of Frenchness, typical Italian behaviour, exemplary Oriental scenes, typical American thruways, traditional English pubs‎’. In our case we here have the sign of the tropical island ‘paradise’ that looms large, larger than life, occluding the very real inequalities and subtitles of social relation that such localities inevitably contain.

Such a framing is somewhat inevitable, but it is worth bearing in mind when considering the generic tourism literature upon such locations. The inequality it assumes has deep roots in that the British influence in Barbados is pronounced; some even call it ‘Little England’, although it’s not just the welcome here that strikes as somewhat warmer than that of the former colonial power. The weather is pretty good year-round with temperatures rarely dipping below 23 degrees C, and despite a ‘wet’ season between July and November, the rainfall largely predictable and merely goes to invigorate the island’s lush, green tropical vegetation. Whilst the island is littered with reminders of this colonial legacy, with place names such as Dover and Hastings, recent royal visits (the Queen is still head of state) and the many reminders of colonial architecture in the grandiose houses of former slave and plantation owners, Barbados continues to emerge steadily from Britain’s imperial shadow.

The inhabitants attitude towards their steady stream of visitors is on the whole warm and friendly and the culture of the island strikes as fairly liberated compared to some of the staid neuroticism that can characterise a general attitude to cultural expression in parts of the US and Europe. All of the usual clich├ęs about vibrancy and colour nevertheless ring true as Bajans present as though they enjoy making a show of their cultural offerings for the tourists that visit. That is not to say the tourist industry can be appraised as a necessarily positive influence over the island’s affairs, as suggested above, and the heavy reliance upon tourism in terms of the island’s GDP could arguably be seen as having a distorting effect upon the very culture that these visitors so enjoy to see. To say that Barbados largely relishes the role of expressing and projecting its lively cultural offerings to the world is not to efface the somewhat unequal relationship that such tourism entails.

For and example of what I am referring to in terms of the language of tourism, see the Barbados Holidays 2012 promotion of this typical UK-based travel company.

1, Culler, Jonathan, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, London, Routledge, 1981, p.127

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