Originally created 02/26/00

Some blame tourists for AIDS epidemic in Tobago



BUCCOO, Tobago -- Every Sunday, when the sun goes down on Buccoo village on the southwest coast of Tobago, the tourists start to gather. The locals, mainly young men, show up later. By mid-evening, thousands are mingling.

A steel band strikes up sweet pan music. Driving soca, dance hall, reggae, even hip-hop, spills out from dingy bars. Harried bartenders dispense beer and rum and cola. Young women, mostly white Europeans and North Americans, dance wildly with dreadlocked young islanders.

It is from parties such as this, experts and officials believe, that AIDS can spread.

The twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago reported 1,200 new AIDS cases from January to October 1999, a 20 percent increase over the year before. The Caribbean region, with 360,000 people reported HIV-positive, has the second-highest infection rate in the world behind sub-Saharan Africa.

Many residents blame foreigners for bringing the disease as they exploited the easy availability of sex and the ignorance of many local people about AIDS prevention.

"They go crazy when they get here," Samuel Nero says. "There's no other word for it. They just go crazy."

The evening party ritual is so ingrained the tourist guidebooks have a name for it: "Sunday school."

Some European women arrive off planes clutching photographs of the young men meeting them -- men recommended by friends who've had a good time in Tobago. But those men often have local girlfriends, even wives.

Tourists find plenty of willing suitors on an island of double-digit unemployment where tourism has supplanted agriculture and fishing as the only viable industries.

"Most of the fellas don't work. They're praying for the tourists to come," said Sheldon Julien, an unemployed 23-year-old who contracted HIV two years ago while working at a beach hotel.

There are no hard and fast prices for sexual services. One man said he'd take money, expensive gifts, sometimes just a dinner. "They take whatever they can get," said Margaret Wright of the Tobago AIDS society.

Trinidad's Daily Express recently noted how many islanders believe "Clorox, blue soap or prayer will protect them better than condoms." One teen-ager said he wouldn't get AIDS if he bathed in the sea immediately after having sex.

The top government official in Tobago, Morgan Job, blamed the high infection rate on irresponsible islanders who "put the lives of their families and other Tobagonians at risk because they want to make some money out of sex."