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  • Behind the Smile: The Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism
  • Amanda Stronza
Behind the Smile: The Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism. By George Gmelch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Pp. x, 211. Illustrations. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $19.95 paper.

Behind the sun, sand, sea, sex, and yes, smiles of Caribbean tourism, a whole cadre of people work so that others may play. In George Gmelch's Behind the Smile, twenty-one men and women who serve vacationers in Barbados tell the stories of their work—behind the airline counters, souvenir stands, barstools, pool tables, and dive shops of their island nation. In narratives that move from the airport to the hotel to the beach and even to the ministry of tourism, we learn of the workers' daily routines, their unusual experiences with tourists, and the aspirations they hold for themselves and their families.

The workers' stories are based on a series of in-depth interviews conducted by Gmelch, an anthropologist who spent years documenting the lives of migrants in Barbados. The stories are prefaced with a brief but comprehensive introduction that includes the history of tourism development in the Caribbean, the varied impacts and post-colonial meanings of tourism, and the many ripples of social and ecological change the industry has sent throughout the islands over the past century. This text is useful for discussions of tourism impacts, and gender, race, and class relations between visitors and locals, especially in the context of Caribbean studies. It [End Page 690] would make a good complement to A Small Place (2000), Jamaica Kincaid's incisive, personal critique of tourism in her own native land of Antigua.

Gmelch's analysis is subtle if not nearly absent in the book. Yet this is a good thing, as he has generously let his subjects speak for themselves. Here the workers become not only the subjects of his volume but also, in essence, his co-authors and ethnographers. They describe Bajan tourism from their own views while also offering many insights as to what their work, in the collective, might mean. Gmelch's methodology was inductive, as he sought not to test particular hypotheses or make predictions or build theory, but rather to describe in detail the individual experiences of local workers. The result is a highly readable, conversational prose. By the time we reach the conclusion, Gmelch's synthesis feels almost superfluous, as he has enabled his interviewees to evaluate their own lives so astutely and eloquently. He is deserving of the most positive comparisons with Studs Terkel.

The narratives are both surprising and revealing. The workers address everything from the ways in which racism colors their interactions with guests, to their own stereotypes of Europeans and Americans, to the gossip on who tips the most, and to the odd things tourists say and do. We peer into work places, daily routines, schedules, annoyances and perks of particular jobs. The details are at times trivial, but the narratives are never tedious. It is just so seldom that we get to hear these voices in our analyses of tourism. Though Gmelch was not striving for generalizations, the narratives do find some common ground. The surprising thing is that so many of the workers portray themselves as happy and even grateful for the work they do. This is not slavery, they tell us, not even in the post-colonial sense. Also, they seem to share quite positive opinions of visitors. Many conveyed just how much they enjoyed the opportunities to meet and interact with tourists. This seemed true even though many complained about the utter ignorance of visitors to their land. Most of all, we get a feeling that people who work in an industry many of us in academia might label as degrading, corruptive, or exploitative are people with considerable perspective and agency in determining—for themselves—the ways in which tourism is influencing their lives. As such, Gmelch has effectively portrayed the mythological "local hosts" of this particular society as real human beings, communicating with foreign visitors much on their own terms, even across boundaries of wealth, class, culture, and race.

Amanda Stronza
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas


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pp. 690-691
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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