Tears for Jamaica - Macleans.ca

Tears for Jamaica

It’s Safe for Tourists, Sad for Citizens


No tourists have been harmed in the violent clashes between Jamaican security forces and gunmen protecting an alleged drug lord sought for extradition to the U.S. But that doesn’t mean Jamaican tourism hasn’t taken a body blow.

The events are taking place almost exclusively in slum areas in and around the island’s capital of Kingston, far from north coast tourist resorts. Many of these areas are referred to as political ‘garrisons’ – places where 90% or more of the electorate votes for a single political party – a process reinforced since the early 70s through coercion, intimidation and bribery. Many of the country’s leading political figures have played roles in arming the ghettos and fomenting violence among poor citizens, through sins of both commission and omission. Violent death is at home in these places, which account for the majority of the astounding 1,700 murders recorded on the island in 2009.

As with many tourist destinations, the reality of life in the slums is in stark contrast to Jamaica’s image of sun, fun, rum and reggae. Jamaica was a pioneer of the all-inclusive vacation, and they do it extremely well: while other Caribbean islands have suffered double-digit declines in tourist arrivals during the recession, Jamaica has more than held its own, and Canadian visitors have risen substantially in recent years, with nearly 300,000 making the trip in 2009.

But tourists are easily scared off, and images of running gun battles are the stuff of nightmares for tourism promoters – just ask Mexico or Thailand. And even those countries aren’t as dependent on tourism as Jamaica, where spending by visitors accounts for a lofty 25% of GDP.

In the wake of this week’s violence, the island is now burdened with travel advisories issued by its three largest source markets: Canada, the U.S. and the UK. Canada is warning visitors to “exercise a high degree of caution,” while the U.S. State Department raises the spectre of spreading violence, saying “the possibility exists that unrest could spread beyond the general Kingston area.” Not exactly the stuff of tourist brochures.

Jamaica is not just another island for me. I fell in love on my first visit in December 1988, weeks after Hurricane Gilbert devastated parts of the country — seduced by the rich smells, the verdant scenery, the pulsing beat of reggae and the warmth of the people. Since that first visit I’ve been back more than a dozen times, sometimes on press trips, others on my own dime.

Last year I visited Jamaica twice and spent a wonderful day at a Montego Bay school with my wife and two young sons through the Jamaica Tourist Board’s Meet the People program. I would highly recommend engaging with that program for anyone who wants to see a slice of Jamaican life outside the gated resort compounds.

Would I still visit Jamaica under current circumstances? Absolutely, I’d leave tomorrow without fear. It is safe for tourists – not so safe for citizens. But I’ve long worried that a day of reckoning would come for the island’s tourism. The extent of the violence in the country was bound to eventually spill over into public consciousness.

Clearly Jamaica has greater concerns than tourism receipts. They need to deal with the horrendous problems created in large part by power-hungry politicians whose actions, as the Jamaica Observer editorialized, have resulted in “a society in which it is considered good to be bad and bad to be good.” That needs to change if One Love is ever to be more than a pipe dream.

Bruce Parkinson is a travel industry journalist and regular contributor to Takeoffeh.com as well as sister company, OpenJaw.com

Photo Credits:peeterv, aassemany

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Tears for Jamaica

  1. The tourist areas are safe. As a resident of Kingston I can't wait for this to end.

  2. Great article, I've never been to Jamaica but have always wanted to go. I guess I have been a little deterred from going because it is one of those places where you generally stay on the resort. When I go somewhere I like to stay where the locals are, unfortunatly it doesn't seem safe to do this here. My ex is Jamaican, he moved to Canada when he was 13, he won't even go back to where he grew up, said it's not worth the risk.

    • As a Jamaican living abroad, I am deeply saddened by the fact that we, as a people are viewed solely in this negative way. Until very recently, with very few exceptions, tourists were able to interact and engage with the people throughout the island. Few isolated incidences, specifically involving local traders forcing the sale of goods unto tourists (hard-sell) has resulted in the tourist industry dissuading tourist from venturing out. Also remember it is not in the interest of the All Inclusive resorts for tourists to venture outside their compound; they want you to stay and spend any extra money with them, not with the natives. I agree that with how things are now, it is not advisable to venture out into the unknown but ideally, if we as Jamaicans want to be prosperous nation again and the most popular tourist destination in the world, we need to wake up and strategies how to achieve the best outcomes in this valuable and pleasurable areas. You don't need to be a Rocket scientist to know that if tourists are local culture, foods etc, the greater their sense of awareness and the more money we make both home and abroad.

  3. Thanks you for your article it is very insightful, poignant and accurate. I am pleased that you experienced a little bit of the other side of JA which is outside that provided by the resorts. JA is a wonderful place but it is in desperate need of a new start. The creation of opportunities for education, training and job creation should be high on the agenda. There are so many niches in JA but individuals who pick up these and who wants to run business, are quickly destroyed by either the locals or the established business community with the aid of their politician friends. Although the nature of the business you run is different to theirs, they don't like to see new comers flourish – they want all even if they can't deliver.

  4. I'm glad to see that some people are looking at this Dudus thing with balanced views. For people like me living in the Jamaican countryside, it's disheartening to see all of Jamaica being painted as a garrison. Even more heartbreaking, though, is that the fact that these garrisons actually do exist in our wonderful country.

    I hope that when the dust settles, Jamaicans abroad and visitors will be happy to venture to Jamaica again. And venture outside the all-inclusives, which really don't give you a proper sense of Jamaica. I find all-inclusives pleasant and convenient, but for the most part, pretty generic. I think they're best suited to domestic Jamaican tourists who actually want to escape from their daily routine, rather than someone who wants to really know Jamaica. All inclusives are a great escape from Jamaica, in my view.

    Jamaicans everywhere, take heart. It may just be that Dudus affair will weed out criminal elements and provide us with a new start.