Tears for Jamaica

It’s Safe for Tourists, Sad for Citizens, Bruce Parkinson

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 as well as sister company,

Photo Credits:peeterv, aassemany