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David Jessop
Former US President Barack Obama visits the Bob Marley Museum. He is assisted by tour guide Natasha Clark.

THE BUSINESS OF TOURISM - The tourism sector should embrace the Caribbean's history

David Jessop, Hospitality Jamaica Writer

When I visit a country, I always try to find an art gallery, museum, or historic building that in some way represents the nation's culture or its past.

In this way it is not only possible to understand more about where I am and the origins and influences that have made a nation's people, but to experience something new in ways that can sometimes be surprising, even moving.

In London, New York, Brussels, Paris and many other global cities, such offerings are, of course, extensive and enough to occupy many days of a visitor's time.

In the Caribbean, this is not necessarily so, although some nations have fine galleries, museums and buildings open to the public.

Cuba and Jamaica are particularly well-endowed. In Havana, the number of such facilities and sites is extraordinary and includes, for example, the National Museum of Fine Arts and the unique Museum of the Revolution. Kingston, too, has at least ten offerings, including the National Museum, the outstanding National Gallery, and, of course, the Bob Marley Museum. In both nations, there are also many historic buildings and sites located away from the capital.

More generally, however, museums, galleries and historic sites around the Caribbean vary enormously in number, size, scope, quality and intent.

This is because the principal problem they face lies in obtaining and maintaining core funding for the upkeep of buildings, existing collections, and staffing. Moreover, special exhibitions are few and far between, and confusingly, some sites, particularly those in smaller islands that have been curated from private collections, seem not to want to explain the context of what is being exhibited or to encourage new thinking about the past.

Museums and national art galleries first and foremost play an essential role in helping educate a nation's children and citizens about their history and culture. However, few involved in such activities in the Caribbean have sought to enhance their funding by establishing linkages to the tourism industry and those involved in selling a destination internationally in ways that might support a country's visitor offering.

Last November, France's president, Emmanuel Macron, pledged that Africa's heritage 'cannot be a prisoner of European museums' and that France would develop and support plans for the repatriation of African artefacts held in France.

Although legally complicated and controversial, it is an initiative that could lead to visitors travelling to new French-supported museums and galleries in the countries from which the objects concerned were originally taken. If developed in an Anglophone Caribbean framework with Britain - perhaps in relation to claims for reparational justice - a similar idea could lead to the creation of well-funded, high-quality museums in the region that are able to house artefacts relevant to local history in locations that would attract residents and visitors alike.

There is potentially a role for the tourism sector and friends of the region to begin to explore such ideas with, for example, the University of the West Indies-based Caribbean Heritage Network and other regional groupings that bring together those who run museums, galleries and historic buildings.

It is now widely accepted that visitors increasingly want authentic cultural experiences, wish to understand more about the country they are visiting, and are interested in spending some of their vacation time away from the beach. It is also accepted that 'responsible tourism' should create more meaningful connections with local people and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues.

There is much more to be written on the subject, but there is, in the region and internationally, a confluence of interest in heritage issues that could be turned to the region's, government's and the industry's advantage. 

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