Thoughts on Minister of Tourism’s comments about media reporting of crime

I did not hear Mr. Bartlett’s comments about media reporting of crime and its potential impact on Jamaica’s tourism, but read reports in The Gleaner and The Observer. The Gleaner reported: ‘”No one wants to wake up and see a front-page story in our newspapers stating, ‘Jamaica bleeds’,” Bartlett told delegates attending the 56th Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel in New Kingston yesterday.’  The Minister argued that there needs to be a partnership between media and tourism, Bartlett warned that the news being put out has the potential to influence the choices of consumers. (As truisms, this one has little need for thought.) Clearly, the tourism sector is, and should be, concerned: “The threat of crime has the ability to erode ‘Destination Jamaica’ and cut off the tourism sector at the knees. We cannot allow this plague to continue to grow – new approaches must be explored with urgency,” JHTA President Omar Robinson told members during the AGM.

But, the Minister chiding the media for putting crime on the front page, ignores more than a few realities about crime as we see it unfolding in Jamaica. While we may not want to see the ‘Jamaica bleeds’ headlines, the truth is Jamaica is bleeding badly, and currently with little sign that this will be curbed. That’s the reality of those who live here, and if tourists get a sense of that, I see no problem. Realistically, many tourists do not get swayed by the news they see (if at all) plastered on local media. If anything, they get their impressions from friends and relatives who have visited previously, from their diplomatic representatives (jaundiced views and all) and from the reporting of their national media, which tend to focus on negative news, in part fed by what local media report, but also fed by their interests and other sources. Whether any of that sways tourist travel choices is a matter of guess-work. Many who travel to Jamaica, including to work rather than play, do so in blissful ignorance.

But, let me put the Minister’s concerns into perspective, because I happened to be in our tourism Mecca over the weekend.

I was in Montego Bay over the weekend, watching a marquee new event, with the PGA Latino America hosting a professional golf tournament in Jamaica for the first time in decades. The 144 players in the field were mainly from the USA, but represented 21 countries, including Jamaica. Let’s assume that each would have been affected by their brief experiences in Jamaica, and represented at least another tourist visit in the near future.

They stayed in hotels near to Cinnamon Hill/Rose Hall and enjoyed the hospitality in and around there, and the ‘face’ shown by the many Jamaicans who helped make the event a success–school children as volunteers, caddies, workers at the golf course and hotel, mainly.

Tourists, of all walks, deal with the realities they face
Young Jamaican school children gave many positive impressions of the island

However, even though they could not venture far from their hotels, they got a good taste of Jamaica, warts and all. They travelled from the airport, at the very least and saw real Jamaica for 10 km.

Of note, my oldest daughter was in Jamaica at the same time. Unlike the golfers, she’s been to Jamaica many times before, and has more than a little idea of what the island is like and has been like over several decades. She barely read a newspaper or watched or listened to local news stations. In that regard, she is like many a foreign visitor: local media isn’t the main source of news. But, her eyes and theirs saw much of Jamaica in a short time. What did they see?

They saw road blocks with policemen carrying semi-automatic rifles along the north coast highway and dressed in bullet-proof vests, looking into the trunks of stopped cars. It was not clear what they were searching for, but I suggested to my daughter that it was likely guns and drugs.  We presumed it was not to take selfies with the passing motorists. They saw tourists being ‘propositioned’ by locals at local eateries, not a crime, but an often unpleasant experience. They saw ‘kamikaze’ taxi drivers weaving at speed along the road, past the police station at Coral Gardens. They saw motorcyclists, often in sleeveless vests and without helmets racing along the road, some doing wheelies.

Now, is Mr. Bartlett going to suggest to the police that they should stop their crime fighting efforts on the highway near the airport, because tourists’ might get a bad message about local crime and their concerns trump our needs to address gun-running and drug trafficking? We can keep crime off the front page, but can it be kept off the streets? Maybe, the press put the emphasis on the wrong issue, but most should know that it’s the reality that needs to change not the reporting of it.

Is Mr. Bartlett going to discuss with taxi operators around Montego Bay that they should act like more-responsible road users, not least because they may kill a tourist? My wife drove up from Kingston on Saturday and her one comment was how she was terrified of the driving she encountered once she left the N-S highway. Guess what? Many tourists have to put up with this same careless approach to other people’s lives every time they set foot in Jamaica! We know our roads can be the scene of much mayhem, and we have recent cases of JUTA buses crashing and tourists being killed. (Tourists were suing Royal Caribbean Cruises earlier this year or not providing a safe excursion.)

Is Mr. Bartlett going to enter communities on the north coast and discuss with them the need to treat people they think are foreigners as nothing more than cash pots? Why should anyone visit a local eatery like Scotchies and have to deal with ‘You can leave a little something with me?’ from one of the counter servers?

Strangely, over the weekend, no one had consulted the weather, which tried to spoil things several times with lighting and heavy rain. Those natural events were as much reality as the crime that affects much of Jamaica, especially the Montego Bay Area. Is Mr. Bartlett going exhort a higher power to think about not spoiling the tourist experience in Jamaica?

I drove through downtown Montego Bay on Sunday morning to visit an aunt, and was again astonished how this potential gem of a city could have been made into somewhere to attract tourists, rather than the sort of place were locals and of course foreigners are less likely to tread. Illegal vendors lined the sidewalk, even under the signs say ‘No vending’.

An incidental photograph, in downtown Montego Bay, as I waited in traffic. Tourists don’t need headlines to make assessments.

No one could easily navigate the pathway. Who would want to come to Jamaica to have a taste of that, even on a quiet Sunday? We know the madness is multiplied many times during the workdays. If we want to massage the image of the country for the benefit of visitors, we can start with places daily encounters may occur.

When we lived in Barbados, we got the impression that the authorities there tried to massage crime reporting to lessen the negative impressions for tourists. However, crime was escalating and while tourists were often not the targets, when they were–as in the case of a Canadian woman attacked on a beach, who later died–it was foreign reporting of incidents that local media tried to play lightly that got the attention of foreign visitors. The matter quickly became a diplomatic incident and cost the Barbadian taxpayer as local police had to travel abroad to deal with the investigation.

If Mr. Bartlett wants to really see a partnership involving tourism, then I would suggest that he address many things in his direct portfolio that may give tourists cause for concern. I think he has plenty to focus on, rather than thinking that the local media is the source of things that may cast Jamaica in a bad light.

Admitted, we are not a large, mature country, but looking at them we can see that the reporting of realities is what gives them part of their strength. UK and French papers are not going to keep from their front pages the horrendous terrorist attacks that have occurred in their capitals, or news of escalating local crime. Both countries depend massively on foreign visitors. The reality is that tourists want to know how you deal with incidents, not that you try to suppress their reporting. That’s what keeps people calm and confident enough to want to visit, stay, and come again.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)