by Pat Dodd Racher
From the Welsh countryside
That popular teacher’s standby topic at the start of term, ‘What I Did in my Holidays’, supposes both that people have holidays and fit ‘activities’ into them. These suppositions are 20th century for the UK, if not for the emerging middle classes in China and elsewhere in Asia.
The news yesterday from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, that real wages (after allowing for inflation) in the UK fell faster between 2008 and 2013 than at any other time in modern history, tells us that most people have less money to spend on holidays. The squeeze is not going to end: for formerly affluent workers in the West, globalisation is a grinding process of levelling down.
In austerity-heavy Greece, the unemployed and/or unpaid are going back, if they can, to the small farms that their parents or grandparents left, when cities were a more enticing prospect. Barter has re-emerged as an important aspect of the economy. In this world, holidays cease to become consumer purchases and are special days punctuating the working calendar.
‘Tourism’ in Wales will change dramatically, too. The short-break market, on which much of scenic rural Wales has a heavy reliance, will shrink. Problem is, policy-makers still expect growth, and even among the post-war babies with their private pensions, calls on their resources to help children buy houses and grandchildren to buy university courses, mean that overall they have less to spend on themselves.
What is the point, then, of encouraging more hotels and guesthouses to open in quiet market towns, rather than developing policies to counteract the perverse impacts of globalisation, by supporting local production for local consumption, production of energy, food, artisan manufactures, remodelling and repairs. Current rules mean that subsidies for local production have to be given voluntarily, by individuals and social enterprises, because the corporation-dominated World Trade Organisation insists on ‘free (unsubsidised) markets’ (except for the manufacture of arms and other ‘essentials’ for the security of the corporate state).
Back to ‘What I Did in my Holidays’. Suppose that in the year 2030, as a decidedly elderly person, I went to Llandovery to stay with my granddaughter.
Scenario 1: The slow train from Swansea clattered over a poorly maintained track, but the embankments were not dangerously overgrown because work parties from the local prison kept them clear. In Llandovery it was market day when I arrived, much of the merchandise transported in electric trucks, some by horse and cart. The high cost of imported foods had persuaded the Welsh government, now in the North West Europe Federation, to prioritise allotments and orchards for communities to grow their own food. The Georgian houses around the Market Square accommodated small shops and workshops. My granddaughter worked in the rural university, which occupied the former premises of Pantycelyn High School (closed 2015) and Llandovery College, which became the nucleus of the new university. I heard lots of Welsh spoken as I wandered around, and some Dutch and Norwegian, but the speakers were attached to the university, not tourists.
Scenario 2: Long and bumpy journey by cart from the rail terminus in Swansea, because the Heart of Wales line had been abandoned in 2020. The roads, damaged by frequent floods and winter icing, discouraged travel. Llandovery was down-at-heel because few residents could afford building materials or paint, which was in short supply anyway. No school now, and certainly no university, so this was a village of the old, like the little communities I remembered from the Adriatic islands of Yugoslavia-that-was in the 1960s, where donkeys were beasts of burden and their owners, dressed in black, toiled alone in the fields. Rural Wales had suffered badly in the Siberian flu epidemic of 2022, and farmers struggled from season to season in the unpredictable and often stormy weather. Llandovery was such a backwater that the little community was largely left to its own devices. My granddaughter was the district nurse, the only one in the whole of North East Carmarthenshire, with a crushingly heavy workload. Her employer, the Central Wales Health Board, owed her five months’ wages.
And I was the only tourist in sight.
by Pat Dodd Racher, September 19 2012
Heritage comes expensive.
Bantry House in County Cork, Ireland, has a magnificent location on the shores of Bantry Bay. The house is home to the Shelswell-White family, whose ancestors moved in during 1765. From 1796 to 1891 those ancestors were the Earls of Bantry, but the title died with the 4th Earl, who had no children, and the estate passed to his eldest sister’s son.
Richard White, the 2nd Earl, was a keen collector of art and antiques, and in 1851 he bought many possessions of the late King Louis Philippe of France, who reigned from 1830 to 1848 and died in 1850. The eclectic mix of French, Irish, English, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish and Oriental contents, and pieces from other parts of the world too, in a largely Georgian mansion, is harmonious and fascinating, not at all intimidating. Visitors can wander around the rooms, taking as long as they want, even look at all the book titles in the library if so inclined. Lunch in the café, strolls around the gardens, and it’s easy to spend several hours here.
Bantry House is, though, colossally in debt. We visited in mid-September, and soon after were told that in June the house had featured in the Channel 4 series ‘Country House Rescue’.* Thanks to Channel 4 On Demand, I watched the programme back in Wales, and learned:
- The estate, formerly thousands of acres, is down to 100. Most of the land has been sold to pay debts.
- Present debts (in Euros) are the equivalent of about £800,000.
- In the first decade of the 21st century, visitor numbers fell from 60,000 to 28,000 a year.
Programme presenter Simon Davis suggested turning the East Stables into a restaurant and special events space, and brought in top Irish chef Richard Corrigan for a trial evening which made a moderate profit. The 70 paying customers paid €100 a head, about £80, which is a lot in modern Ireland (as it is in Wales too). It’s a sum representing an occasional treat, not a routine expenditure. It’s hard to see what more the owners of Bantry House could do to increase their revenues, as they host a music festival, plays, a craft fair, photography courses and a lot more besides. You can stay there as a guest, and the thought of evenings by the fire in the library is very tempting.
Bantry is an important historical house, but remote from tourism hot-spots. The day we visited, there was just one coach party and maybe a dozen cars at a time. In our era of falling real incomes (for the great majority) it is bound to become more difficult to afford the ongoing maintenance of the great houses of the past, let alone pay off all past debts.
One promising avenue is a package deal with Bantry Golf Club, a round on the championship course and a stay in the house. There are some very affluent golfers, for whom it’s a case of have clubs, will travel, and even better if they can help to preserve historic buildings too.
I can imagine oligarchs and hedge fund managers, with millions and even billions of pounds at their disposal, drooling at the prospect of owning a house like Bantry, but they would break the continuity of family occupation. What is more, would they keep it open to the public? When very rich people buy estates, they often put up big gates and make it clear that house and land are PRIVATE. That, in the case of our historical heritage, would be a reversal of 100 years of widening public access.
So do visit Bantry House and help to keep it open and flourishing!
* ‘Country House Rescue’, series 4 episode 3.
The water famine in the Centro Habana district of Havana was extreme. When I was there in December, people rushed to fill storage tanks, bowls, buckets, whatever receptacle was to hand, when the mains supply was turned on, generally around 4pm in the afternoon. The supply was turned off again about 7pm.
Despite the water shortages, the Cuban government is apparently planning to build ten golf courses for the tourists. One golf course uses as much water as a town of 12,000 inhabitants, according to www.tourismconcern.org.uk/golf.html.
The University of Havana suffers from the same privations as most of the rest of the city. The water supply to our campus building was turned off when I was there. This meant that the toilets were closed, although the guardian of the WCs would unlock in response to an urgent plea. Then it was a case of using a pail to scoop some of the remaining water from a barrel, and tipping it down the pan. The flush mechanisms had all been removed, and there was no water for hand washing.
The 88 wide steps leading up to Havana University are a city landmark. Students sit and stroll in pairs and groups on the pleasantly tree-shaded campus. I was there for a week to learn more Spanish, not nearly long enough, of course, but the maximum time I had. My fellow students were of all ages, including pensioners, mainly from northern and western Europe and Japan – and some from the USA. Our teachers were expert, their classes excellent. They work in difficult conditions, because the university has other shortages besides water.
Books are scarce and many date from before the demise of the Soviet Union. In the pharmacy library, half the floor was up, and the dusty surroundings made me think I had stumbled into Miss Haversham’s hermitage in Charles Dickens‘ Great Expectations. An assistant was searching in an old-fashioned card index. There is no internet access on the campus, not a surprise because only Cubans with special authorisation, or with enough money to pay 6 to 10 cuc (£4 to £6.67, the equivalent of a week’s wages) for an hour at an official access point, can use the internet. Even then, the sites visited are monitored. In the university’s classrooms, teachers have a blackboard and chalk but not much else.
I think there are circumstances in which Cuban self-reliance goes too far, and education is one of them. It is a closed world. Outsiders cannot routinely apply for jobs or even work for free in Cuban schools or higher-education institutions, unless they have a place on one of the few tourism-cum-culture three- or four-week volunteer holiday programmes, which are closely monitored. I suppose the government thinks foreigners would spread imperialist propaganda. As a result, young people are not exposed to different points of view, nor challenged to think in different ways. Little by little, this deliberate sequestration threatens to marginalise Cuban scholarship. It’s not only water that is cut off in Cuba. Even if it’s not yet possible fully to restore the water supply, why not allow teachers and students more freedom to open the taps of communication?
The water supply in Centro Habana, the crowded district between the old city and 20th-century Vedado to the west, was turned off for 21 hours in every 24. Power cuts were nothing unusual. Most tourists in the hotels would not know, because hotels have reserve tanks and back-up generators. Tourists are a race apart in Cuba, viewed by government as walking wallets, an economic necessity in the absence of preferable income streams. The objective of tourism here is to extract as much cash as possible from the jumbo-jet-loads of pale visitors from the North. One determined seller of hand-made tablecloths, at an old sugar estate near Trinidad, told me pointedly “No poor people come to Cuba,” as she complained about my refusal to buy one of the aforementioned articles, as if my capacity to travel imposed an obligation to buy unnecessary souvenirs.
I do not use tablecloths. My grandmothers did, when I was a small child. I also remember cake stands, silver cutlery and porcelain tea cups, none of which feature in my daily life. Cuban handicrafts are stuck in the pre-Revolutionary age. Should I buy tablecloths, thus encouraging the makers to continue fashioning goods we no longer use? I would prefer to tell the truth as I see it, that the armies of souvenir makers should find out what – if anything — their customers would actually like to buy.
Cuba is a Rip van Winkle of a country, worse in fact because Rip, in the story by Washington Irving, slept only 20 years before emerging to find a world he did not recognise, and in which scarcely anyone recognised him. Cuba has been ‘different’ for 53 years, two generations. In all that time, government has ‘protected’ its subjects from information. No foreign newspapers, magazines, radio or TV programmes, no internet. No travel without special permission. Cubans are discouraged from mixing with tourists, who can stay only in approved accommodation. The only window on the world is government controlled and heavily censored.
Why is the regime so afraid of open communications, open doors? Maybe it fears a mass exodus, another revolution, the return of the Mafia, the rise of drug cartels. Yet there is crime, as state employees line their own pockets. A mass exodus would probably be less likely if people knew they were free to leave whenever they wished, and if they also had the freedom to find out what is going on in the rest of the world, and the capacity to bring in capital from outside Cuba, to rebuild the shattered economy.
The infrastructure is in tatters. Broken water pipes are unrepaired for months, years. Instead, households are routinely cut off. Outside the tourism hot spots, buildings are falling down and roads are potholed. Huge tracts of farmland lie idle. Derelict hulks mark where factories used to be.
I think I can understand why Fidel Castro chose this form of apartheid. The USA, former paymaster and only 90 miles to the north, could have taken advantage of any rapprochement from Cuba to recolonize the country, and that would have negated the Revolution. The world is different now. We have reached the limits to growth. The USA, a colossal debtor nation, no longer has the resources for ‘full-spectrum dominance’. Negotiation and compromise are the priorities now, as I see them.
Time for the Cuban state to open the doors and windows, to unlock access to the rest of the world.
Time for the USA to accept that 2012, not 1959, is the starting point for a new era in bilateral relations.
We saw a blue-feathered quetzal high in the Monteverde cloud forest, watched monkeys leap from tree to tree, paddled in the Pacific at Playa Hermosa, admired the painted ox carts of Sarchi, and hiked on the slopes of an active volcano, Rincon de la Vieja.
Costa Rica in Central America is famous for tourism, especially ‘ecotourism’, which is perhaps a slightly misleading word given that the energy costs of travelling to and from the country are excluded from the equation. More than 60% of visitors to Costa Rica are from the USA, from which it is separated by Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The flight times from continental USA to San Jose are shorter than the ten or 11 hours from Europe — two and three quarter hours from Miami, four fours from Dallas, seven hours from New York – but the rising costs of air travel are a worry for the tourism industry in Costa Rica, as they are for destinations around the globe.
The label ‘ecotourism’ may be more of a sop to the traveller’s conscience than an accurate description of tourism’s environmental impact, although the use of local construction materials, low-energy light bulbs, and home-grown food does help to limit the ecological cost of catering for large numbers of visitors. A record of almost 2.1 million visitors came to Costa Rica in 2010, the Tico Times reported in January.[i] Visitors come for the sun, beaches, flora, fauna, and landscapes, and will continue to come all the time that their disposable incomes are high enough to afford air travel.
The Costa Rican government, only too well aware of the likely damaging impact of scarcer oil on holiday travel, has reacted with advertising campaigns in the USA to make more vacationers aware of Costa Rica, and also by focusing on persuading tourists to spend more – a great deal more, if they come to Costa Rica to buy medical treatment, a second home, or a retirement home.
Travelling through the Guanacaste province in northern Costa Rica on our Fair Trade trip in February, we noticed smart villas rising on construction sites, with information boards in English, destined for buyers from the big country to the north. Liberia in Guanacaste has a new international airport, near unhurried, undeveloped Pacific beaches. Developments of new holiday and retirement homes took a battering in 2008 and 2009, but the market seems to be slowly reviving. Several of the properties advertised online in March 2011 are discounted from their original asking prices, but are hardly cheap. The prestigious residences marketed by Karen Ebanks[ii] include Casa Crystal Waters Chateau, a five-bedroomed mansion in a five-star location for $10 million; a fortress-style four-bedroom complex, palatial but far from homely, for $847,500, reduced from $1.3 million; and a rambling five-bed house on a 1.3 acre plot in a gated development for $1.45 million.
Who buys these tropical mansions? Rich Americans, mainly. Frank Biden, ex-White House staffer and brother of the US vice-president Joe Biden, and his business partner Craig Williamson are developing 1,311 homes on 2,604 acres to create the Guanacaste Country Club, a residential-cum-sports complex featuring a Jack Nicklaus golf course, a Mark Spitz swimming pool, a Jim Courier tennis academy, and all the fitness, hiking, mountain biking and restaurant opportunities that American seniors could dream of.[iii] It will be eco, of course, with renewable energy (probably geothermal energy from the nearby Rincon de la Vieja volcano park), wildlife corridors and waste recycling.
The influx of retiring Americans and other super-rich will need health care, and this is the focus of the Pacific Plaza Health and Living development, a few minutes from Liberia’s airport. The residential, shopping and leisure development is centred on a new CIMA[v] (Center of International Medicine Advanced) hospital, which caters for the growing numbers of US citizens coming south for medical treatment. The first CIMA hospital, in the capital San José, even contains an office of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, to assist ex-members of the military who seek health care in Costa Rica. CIMA says that 15% of the visitors to Costa Rica come for medical treatments, which would be about 315,000 a year. I think this figure is probably an over-estimate, but the numbers of medical tourists are certainly growing.
They come because of the sun, the warmth, the very well educated medical staff, but mainly because medical treatment is currently much cheaper than in the USA, between a quarter and half of the price. I picked up an old tourism industry magazine, dated March-June 2008, when in Monteverde, and read an article headlined ‘Turismo medico: la gran oportunidad’, which put the cost of a heart bypass at $25,000 in Costa Rica compared with about $100,000 in the USA. There is cosmetic and dental surgery too: a dental implant at $1,000 is one-third the cost in the USA. The article pointed out that 46 million people in the US lacked medical insurance, that 108 million did not have dental insurance, and that across the world’s wealthiest nations, 220 million ‘baby boomers’ the post-1945 generation, will be in need of major medical attention before 2015. Costa Rica’s reputation as a leading centre for medical tourism gains another boost in May 2011 when from the 2nd to the 4th, the SecondMedical Travel International Summit will take place in San José and Guanacaste.
Maybe the ideal for Costa Rica would be an influx of prosperous US baby boomers, buying villas overlooking the ocean and seeking medical care in the well-equipped hospitals, golfing, swimming and playing tennis regularly enough to give them a long, comfortable retirement while they benefit the Costa Rican economy without piling on those polluting and oil-depleting air miles.
The outlook for medical tourism is rosy, provided that the climate does not worsen appreciably. Last November, torrential rains made the roads impassable. As the world warms, intense storms become more frequent, and do more damage. Drug trafficking is another anxiety. Costa Rica is part of the drug corridor through Central America from Colombia to the USA, and in September 2010 Barack Obama added Costa Rica to the US list of the world’s 20 major drug trafficking and producing countries, 14 of which are in Central and South America and the Caribbean.[vi] Costa Rica axed its armed forces in 1948, and relies on the police force for security, but the drug runners have money and arms, boats and planes. Nicaragua, also on the drugs list, is accused of annexing a portion of Costa Rican territory on the southern margin of the San Juan river, raising the temperature in its peaceful neighbour, which relied on the International Court of Justice to deliver a fair verdict. That decision came today, March 8th, but only as an interim measure requiring both sides to keep the disputed zone free of military, police and civilian personnel.[vii]
The border dispute may turn out to be nothing more than a minor local difficulty, but the drugs trade is a big concern, and one of the reasons why so many Costa Rican homes, especially in San José, are protected with metal fences, iron grilles and rolls of barbed wire.
The developer’s typical answer is to build gated communities – incorporating homes, healthcare, shopping and leisure — for the migrants from the north. Not the real Costa Rica, but sunny and comfortable nevertheless.
Note: Yes, it is hypocritical to fly to Costa Rica and then complain about long-haul tourism!
[iv] as previous note.
[vi] White House memorandum 2010-16, September 15th 2010.
[vii] Edition.cnn.com, March 9th 2011, Court bars Costa Rica, Nicaragua from disputed area.