Island in the Sun

Trouble clouds the horizon in paradise

Thomas Hopkins,Jane O’Hara March 23 1981

Island in the Sun

Trouble clouds the horizon in paradise

Thomas Hopkins,Jane O’Hara March 23 1981

Island in the Sun


Trouble clouds the horizon in paradise

Thomas Hopkins

Jane O’Hara

In the circuitry of runways at Honolulu airport, a CP Air jumbo nods to a stop. Along with the odd airplane smell of alcohol and fatigue, the plane exhales 400 Canadians white as beluga whales, awkward in winter clothes and already showing a cellophane sheen of sweat on their faces. They bump, shuffle and low like cattle as they wait for bags. Then, almost unnoticed, two girls, store clerks from Saskatoon, change into their slitleg dresses. An orchid appears in the hair. A smile is exchanged. A vacation has begun on an island in the sun.

Last year, almost 800,000 Canadians beached their winter blahs in the nearest snowbank and headed south to the islands. For westerners, that unfailingly meant Hawaii. For easterners, the word vacation was made flesh in the Bahamas, Bermuda or on a Caribbean island like Barbados, where the rum is poured with a heavy calypso hand, where the beaches feel like baby powder, and where, on any morning, at least one group of Canadians can be found tuned into Rex Loring and the CBC radio news before going out to snorkel.

In recent months, however, tourism has dropped on the islands, throwing tropical officials into a restrained panic. “What kind of bad stories have you been writing about us up there?” asked one tour agent in St. Lucia faced with an awesome vacancy rate. In Hawaii, where airline landings have slipped nine per cent this year, the much-reported increase in crime (see box, page 46) has caused Canadians to think

twice about spending their tourist dollars down among the sheltering kukuis. In the Caribbean—a geopolitical pepper pot where Third World problems of unemployment, poverty and political unrest are making tourists edgy—things are much the same. According to tourism officials there, the heady 10to 15per-cent annual growth rates of the ’70s have dwindled due to rising air fares, and food prices. “These people ^could be pricing themselves right out of ^business,” said Cyril Warrener, a Winnipeg civil servant, who with his wife spent $4,000 in two weeks on Barbados.

To many Canadians, a winter holiday is still as sacred a fix as Hockey Night in Canada and never more so than during the spring school break—traditionally the biggest vacation binge of them all. According to Gordon Osborne, a Pointe Claire, Que., travel agent, most people don’t care about the standard of living, the minimum wage or the other problems that bedevil the archipelago of playgrounds—unless, of course, they could ruin a holiday. “My clients want to know two things,” he said. “Are they guaranteed sunshine? And, how much does it cost?” But, although sun, sand

and surf on the islands continue to be more of a surety than a Canada Savings Bond, most Canadians returning from the islands paint a cloudier picture. All is not perfect in paradise, after all.

It is another impeccable evening in Barbados. The sun is down, the moon up and the scent of so much tropical flora is in the air that it seems even the piña coladas must be in bloom. Above it all, on the open veranda of a hillside restaurant overlooking Bridgetown’s harbor, Frank Brown, a 56-year-old businessman from Bracebridge, Ont., sits transported. As his coffee cools under the Royal palms, Brown might easily be mistaken for a master planter dispatched to the tea farm in the heyday of the British raj. But when he summons the check, the idyll begins to fade. Like most Canadians holidaying in the Caribbean these days, Brown must pay for his fantasy, even if it means putting it on credit.

“I love it here,” says Brown, who spent $3,000 in two weeks on the island

while his wife “stayed home with the dogs.” But since his first visit 10 years ago, he has noticed a change. “At first, it was nothing but the best of service. Now, half the people are busting their asses for us. The other half don’t want us. It’s just not the same.”

The message is clear, be it from a Toronto couple complaining about a $9 plate of spaghetti, or from Ottawa Rough Rider Tony Gabriel, who described the $1,500 (per week) apartment he had rented as “a dump.” Paradise doesn’t come cheap these days. Prices for package tours to the Caribbean have increased by as much as 84 per cent over the past five years. Of course, there are always those who will fly in the face of all economic intelligence. Two such people are Renée Pion and her boy-friend, Yvon Blanchette, of St. Damase, Que., who recently spent $290 to tour the rattan bric-a-brac boutiques and the ver-

dant rain forest of Martinique. Hopping aboard the eight-seater Islander aircraft at Barbados airport, they explained their obsession. “We work only so that we can holiday,” said Yvon, a butcher. “This trip to Barbados will cost us about $3,500 for two weeks. We want to go to Martinique just to have a look, since we are planning a trip there next year.”

On the Jolly Roger cruise ship, where the rum punch is legendary and everything including sex in the crow’s nest is licensed, Sandra Caldwell, 24, of Toronto has just been married by a mock captain’s edict to a vacationing British soldier she has barely been introduced to. Her sister Cathy, sun-darkened as a roasted coffee bean, looks on. “We’ve blown about $2,500 down here,” she says, “and it’s been worth every penny.” But Caldwell’s enthusiasm is not uni-

versally shared. “We came here to get tanned, not burned,” said Cindy Carson, 24, of Thornhill, Ont., who fired off a litany of complaints about the island, including one that she and her husband had $200 stolen while sunning on the beach. By comparison with Carole and David Muxlow of Toronto, the Carsons got off easy. The Muxlows had come to Barbados this year after tiring of two years of holidays in the political tension of Jamaica (where, for the first 10 months of 1980, the murder rate skyrocketed to 745 from 291 the previous year). “We had heard Barbados was the safest island of all,” said Carole, “but the first night here we woke up and found a burglar in our room. I spent the rest of the week with a knot in my stomach. Next year we may try Florida.”

Incidents like these can happen anywhere, of course. But increasingly,

along with higher prices, they are beginning to have an effect on the once unassailable loyalty Canadians felt toward Caribbean islands. Over the past 25 years the east Caribbean—a string of 13 major islands—has been the beneficiary of more than $300 million in Canadian foreign aid and $1 billion in private Canadian investment.

From his small office, not 90 metres from the sound of the soft-breaking surf, Patrick Hinds, the Barbados director of tourism, keeps watch on Caribbean tourist statistics the way a cardiologist monitors a heartbeat. Outside, under a fierce sun, visitors in their $60a-day rented cars tour the island’s maze of connective arteries. In the northern stretch of the island, where the cane is as high as an elephant’s eye and the annual rural wage drops dramatically

from the $2,600 earned yearly by Bajan urban dwellers, Torontonian Graham Carson is confronted by a group of uniformed schoolchildren who call him “honky” and “clear eyes.” Carson’s anger is anything but muted: “I paid a big buck to come here, but not to be insulted,” he says. On the pearly beaches, black Bajan boys sell their sexual wares like coral trinkets. A few faded blondes are buying; other women are bothered by the constant propositioning. Hinds is aware of all the niggling complaints of tourists, although, as in the case of Saskatoon’s Tim

Beechinor—who moaned that he missed his TV—there is little Hinds can do about some of them.

That Barbados is considered one of the safer islands in the Caribbean is obvious to anyone who has read reports of the terrorist bombings in Martinique or of the recent kidnapping of a wealthy American couple in poverty-ridden Dominica which precipitated a state of emergency on the island. It is also relatively affluent compared with an island like Haiti, where a package deal can be had cheap, but where the beckoning of street urchins can be enough to put high-flying tourists off their banana daiquiris. Still, given all Barbados has to offer as a Robinson Crusoe fantasy land, tourism has not expanded according to plan. In 1980, tourism brought in $470 million but was up only .2 per cent over 1979, while the government was banking on a 10-per-cent hike. In 1979, 93,000 Canadians made their way to Barbados—more than any other nationality including Americans—but in 1980 the numbers had dropped to 84,934. “We don’t see much of a change for ’81,” says Hinds gloomily.

Nonetheless, islands like Barbados, Bermuda and the Bahamas have little to complain about compared with the perilous state of the industry on other islands. In Grenada and St. Vincent, tourism was so blighted last year that officials stopped putting out statistics for fear it would scare more tourists away. In Grenada, a volcanic paradise of unparallelled beauty, Cuban financing and manpower is helping to build a new airport which will reportedly restore the tourist trade. But, at present, the People’s Revolutionary Government of Maurice Bishop, which came to power in a military coup in 1979, is doing little to en-

courage tourism. “We haven’t been able to sell a tour there for two months,” said Brian Warnock, a tour guide with Island Hoppers in Barbados. “The last group we sent there was upset when Cuban soldiers carrying Russian rifles stopped them from photographing Grand Etang, one of the main tourist attractions.”

In Western Canada, the traditional loyalty to Hawaii is also being sorely tested. One sign—the two inter-island airlines, Aloha and Hawaii, are off 9.5 and 13.3 per cent respectively. “Travel to Hawaii from this area [Calgary] is off this year,” says Isobel Whiteside, president of the Alliance of Canadian Travel Associations. While island officials pri-

marily blame the drop on a recession in the American Midwest, and while last year saw as many Canadians Hawaiibound as the previous year, there is no doubt that recent violent crimes are making many Canadians rethink that five-hour jumbo jet ride to the sun.

The ones who do go are an independent crew. Fully 67 per cent of Canadian visitors to the necklace of eight major Hawaiian islands are so-called Free and

Independent Travellers (FITS), uninterested in package tours, even at reduced tariffs. Their mean age is 41, their income a robust $45,000 to $50,000, although they spend only $55 (U.S.) a day compared to $64 for Americans or $175 for the Japanese.

As many as 150,000 of the sunseeking Canadians will end up on the fish-shaped island of Maui, 30 minutes by air from Honolulu. With only 12 traffic lights and a permanent population of 60,000, the volcano-dominated island spreads out its wares for the older tourist: eight lush golf courses,

some 120 luxury condominium complexes in resort areas such as Kaanapali and startling scenery like the harrowing drive to the rain forest village of Hana. For Kenneth Guest, retired insurance salesman from Nanaimo, B.C., down for six weeks, Hawaiian tonics include an hour-long walk and ocean swim before breakfast and the easy conversation of friends he has made over the 12 years he has been coming to the islands. For Banff switchboard installer Bill Burdett, who has visited Maui six years in a row, the main attraction is the snorkeling in pristine waters. Another attraction is soothing familiarity. The disturbing resent-

ments and bubbling patois of native Hawaiians can generally be avoided, and both Moosehead Beer from New Bruns, wick and Cheerios can be found on grocery store shelves.

Indeed, Maui has become something of a Canadian colony. It was 1951 when no-nonsense Vancouver lumberman Gordon Gibson Sr. paid $34,000 for 30 arid Maui acres around the village of Kihei (key-hay) and put up a B.C.-manufactured Pan-Abode house. The next day’s local headline was prophetic: ECCENTRIC CANADIAN DOUBLES LAND VALUES IN KIHEI. In 1960, when Gibson opened his resort of Maui Lu on the Kihei site, there was only one other resort operation on the island. Today there are 78 hotels and condominiums along the best beaches, and an estimated 25 to 30 per cent of the condos are owned by Canadians. (Squatting on the Papaken Resort seawall, a young native Hawaiian groundskeeper says angrily, “You come back in five years, man, this island is gonna sink”) Although Gibson, so-called Bull of the B.C. woods, sold the 212-unit Maui Lu to Calgarybased Nu-West Development Corporation Ltd. in 1977, the two B.C. totem poles that watch the sunset on the beach in front of the resort remain.

For younger, more adventurous FITS such as Vancouverite James Mepham, 33, and Janet Vlahovich, 27, the lure is extravagant beauty. Late in January they paddled their bright yellow Royal kayaks up the placid Kalihiwai River on the wild north shore of the island of Kauai, 140 km from Honolulu. With Hawaiian guide Mike McLennan of Island Activities Ltd., they stroked past guava trees and under the radiating branches of monkey pods. They beached and climbed, tripping over ginger root, to a feathery horsetail of a waterfall that summoned involuntary memories of Mitzi Gaynor washing that man right

out of her hair (originally filmed a short distance away). After an icy swim (“I only bring Canadians here,” laughed a deeply tanned McLennan), cheese and bread are passed around. Everywhere, stacked and jumbled, something is growing and pushing from the ochre-red soil.

For the pliant and the single, there is sensuality of another sort. Át 3:30 in the heavy morning darkness, wobbly embraces are engaged outside the Observatory Disco in Kapaa down the Kauai coast. Silk dresses cling to legs in the damp and bodies are moulded over fenders of parked cars. As he leaves, Uwe Spätling, 27, an armed forces captain stationed in Sagehill, Sask., says with exasperation: “It almost drove me crazy. I met five girls and their names all started with L.” A weary Observatory owner, Lyman Yoshimura, watches. “It’s the vacation atmosphere,” he shrugs as headlights cut into the fat surf across the street. “You’re never going to see these people again.”

As in the Caribbean, not everyone is pleased, however. Colleen Sinclair, 31, and Maja Briscoe, 41, of Vancouver Island’s Port McNeill, single mothers on their first vacation without kids in seven years, find Hawaiian service snooty and the battlements of Maui condominiums like tenements on New York’s lower east side. The Canadian owners of some of those condominiums might be equally unhappy pondering the fact that about 2,000 condos are now languishing in a flat resale market. Still, they might take comfort watching surfers from the windblown crescent of Maui’s D.T. Fleming Park, while above the beach middle-aged tourists in baseball hats and clip-on sunglasses turn and lever themselves into the vast moving fleet of Japanese rent-a-cars that ring the islands like a carousel. (Budget alone has 900 cars on Maui.) On their way back to Lahaina, Kaanapali, Wailuku or any of the other gorgeous vowel-choked Hawaiian towns, preparing for home, the visitor can stop and pick up a Vancouver Sun at the local grocery store—to check the weather.

At Honolulu airport on the way back to winter, a lady surreptitiously checks a tan by comparing it to the whiteness on the underside of her arm. It is a comic contortion, but she appears to be pleased. Others poke the sandpapery red tops of feet and backs, moving delicately as if the slightest jerk would cause the flesh to buckle and crack. A small group stands rooted in a last diminishing bar of sunlight, faces upturned like flowers. Like summer camp, new near-islanders, such as Winnipeg’s Cec Winters, watch pale awkward arrivals flood off the plane as if they were Martians. The revolving dance continues despite all obstacles. For heat and fragrance and islands in the sun.