A trip to exclusivity

by Rob Horning

2 April 2007


Having just returned from a vacation at a resort hotel in the Caribbean, I found this WSJ article about exclusive resorts within resorts pertinent. The resort at which I stayed felt carceral to say the least—it was retrofitted into the site of an old fortress, and portions of it were literally cordoned off with barbed wire. Yet at the same time, an atmosphere of openness was built into the infrastructure of the place, with all the restaurants and bars and hotel services being outdoors. Just enough relaxed openness was suggested by this setup to allow the more imaginative tourists to pretend that they weren’t in a fortress and were instead integrated in some way with real island culture. The ability to relax at the resort seemed akin to the ability to enjoy TV shows with laugh tracks, or incoherent special-effects laden movies: It seems as though you have to be willing to do a lot of pretending and suspend a lot of disbelief to overlook the fact that the staff regards you with a mixture of contempt, suspicion and condescension, overlook the tension generated by income disparities between tourists and locals, the essentially predatory nature of tourist enterprises. Of course you can skirt a lot of that by eschewing the amenities of resorts, but then you are forced to concentrate on how to actually do everyday things in a foreign environment, which is probably the opposite of relaxing for many vacationers. The things you take for granted (buying gas, reading a menu, etc.) become complicated, and embarrassment lurks around every corner.

Resorts protect you from all that complication of the reality of foreignness, but at the expense of jailing you in a plush prison. But they go beyond merely insulating us from the challenges of learning how to function in new environments and having to make too many decisions, beyond permitting us to take a vacation from thinking (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace’s account of taking a cruise, explicates these points pretty well). By foregrounding the helplessness of the tourist while confronting him at every turn with semi-sarcastic solicitude, resorts actually heighten all the tensions and pretenses, the disparities between tourists and servants, rather than dissipate them; perhaps it’s because these tensions are actually what many vacationers want to consume, class resentment as a testimony that you’ve arrived, that you’ve reached a place where you can have the power to boss people around and be fussed over. The elaborate gate-keeping procedures at resorts are a part of this; if resorts are like prisons, it’s because we want to consume the feeling of being guarded—we want to taste the power of exclusion (which epitomizes class conflict generally) in one of its most concrete forms.

But when regular shmoes like me can be at a resort, the resort has clearly lost some of its exclusive appeal: Hence the ultraprivate resort within the resort the WSJ article notes:

Now some resorts are rolling out fancier service tiers that come with benefits blatantly visible to other guests, from private pools and beach areas in the middle of the grounds to guaranteed spots at crowded restaurants. Elite guests—who pay an additional $40 to $900 or more per night—also get nicer rooms and full access to the main resort. To distinguish them from the regular guests, many of whom are paying hefty rates of $400 to $1,000 a night, they sometimes get special bracelets or towels.

The writing here seems a bit slanted toward maximum populist outrage, but nevertheless it makes clear that consuming exclusivity is less a matter of achieving privacy (as is the case in some of the upgrades discussed) and more a matter of showing those beneath you what your money can buy, gloating in the VIP pool with your special wristband. If you pursue these special services, you actually want less privacy; you want more people to see you in all your luxuriousness. The desire to be seen enjoying privileges is an extension of the reality-TV mind-set, where having an audience is an essential ingredient for validation. But other resort guests don’t want to be an audience; they want to consider themselves the stars too—hence, the article’s focus on the aggrieved hotel patrons discovering they are second class citizens.

The idea that others might be more important can spark a little vacation insecurity. During her weeklong visit to the 49-room Anse Chastanet Resort on St. Lucia last fall, at $475 a night, Rosaria Davies could see the five-month-old Jade Mountain extension every time she went for a swim on the beach. Guests there get their own restaurant, spa and pools, plus access to the main resort; nightly rates this season start at $1,150. “It looked great from afar,” says the 37-year-old from London. When she and her husband had to wait an hour between the appetizers and main course at dinner one night, they wondered if Jade Mountain guests were being served more quickly. During the trip, the couple joked, “Are we chopped liver?” The hotel says it treats all of its guests equally.

Since everyone can’t feel as though they are the only guest, treating everyone equally is the next-best thing—a compensatory egalitarianism that nullify’s our awareness of others—being as we often only notice strangers through invidious comparison. But resorts are tempted by the allure of discriminatory pricing, reintroducing an aspect of the world (relentless status competition) many of us specifically go on vacation to escape.

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