I’ll be brief, as I’ve been on this road before. I don’t like what our tourism ‘product’ is. Why? It gives visitors little that is unique, even though what we offer is often very good. One of the areas where we have missed out on raising the value and difference of what we offer is sharing our history. Now, I’ll not be naive and suggest that our history is all about wonderful and joyous experiences–far from it. But, that’s not what concerns visitors; they want to know and understand a little of what makes the place and people what they are. Take a few examples, from around the world where tourism is really successful.
Britain: It’s steeped in history and makes it important by taking care of the physical structures that are part of that story. You know the sights: Westminster Abbey, Hadrian’s Wall, Charing Cross, castles abound, even Roman roads that are now parts of modern highways.
France, Germany, most of Europe: Go to almost any town, not major city, and you will find something noteworthy about its history as a place of interest–homes, bridges, waterways, forests, etc. You live and breathe the history, that’s been blended in life through the centuries.
USA: An historical infant, yet ready to boast that it has stories to tell, even though when people think hard they have to admire the upstart. But, Gettysburg, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Ellis Island, Charleston, New Orleans, and many more have stories to share, with blood, sweat and even continuing pain.
Asia: Temples, museums, names, and more, evoke centuries past and the threads of tradition that are so important.
Africa: Not a single country, but in many of them the artifacts and stories are there to see and find, from Casablanca, through Accra, to Timbuktu, to Robin Island, lives past are there to share.
Jamaica? Well, we are not really sure what we want to share so in the meantime much has fallen into waste and disrepair. Kingston has some of the Caribbean region’s most attractive buildings, whether remnants of plantation days or more modern sites. Yet, they’re more notable for neglect than upkeep.
Don’t give me the ‘We don’t have the money’ story! That canard won’t fly. What we don’t have is a vision. Because of that, most of our citizens have been left clueless what to value, even if it’s evocative of the most painful times in our history.
When we visited Dakar in Senegal, to see a point where slaves were thrown into ships, do you think we laughed and posed by the opening to celebrate the events? No! We might have taken pictures to remind ourselves that our ancestors survived. Did we laugh? No! We shed many tears. But, the images evoked are seared into our minds.
How many Jamaicans have an inkling about our varied past? Whether we agree on why Ochi Rios has that name, or how Wait-A-Bit managed to be called that, or the historical relevance of Sligoville, we are more or less clueless. Public authorities keep us that way by the simple act of not seeking to highlight anything that could inform. It takes little to put up a sign, and even if it were scratched in charcoal on plywood it would be more than nothing. But, doing nothing is easy! Let’s sit back and claim we need money. We’ve had for decades a pool of unemployed people able to do simple tasks. I’d agree that to give them all decent wage would not be simple, but something in return for work isn’t hard to do, but it takes doing and organizing.
I walked along a street in Washington DC last night and saw people peering at a stone house, marked ‘Old Stone House’. It’s history was not well known, but it stood there, and had been ‘captured’ to sustain interest. It was closed, but people still wandered up tomit and tried to peer into its windows. To see it derelict would be a travesty.
That’s part of our problem. Not enough of us feel that dereliction is a travesty. We see it as a state of our condition that can’t be changed.
I always shed a few tears when I go into downtown Kingston. My memories are few but I remember my father telling me about Back-A-Wall and how the ‘Rasta people’ started to come to capture land and change the city. Tivoli Gardens, now, is both ugly and without its historic soul. A simple plaque would be like a honey pot to many who are curious. But, Kingston has been gutted by allowing it to be ceded to many elements of selfishness, whose dynamics have taken on a force now hard to resist. It’s new mayor seems to be walking against that tide, and he needs much support. Yes, through some spontaneous processes, Tivoli and other places have begun to attract tourists, but it was allowed to feed on itself as a bad place that drove out good. London’s Soho was for long a bad place but it always kept a way in for anyone who could take the bad and pass through. When I was a teenager in London and walking there, I saw prostitution and drug-taking, but knew it was part of a world that wasn’t mine. Those who thrived on that couldn’t make the place so hostile that no one entered. Our criminal classes never seemed to have grasped some simple economic truths about how to do illegal and illicit things and grow the pie for all. (Maybe, it’s because we’re not that smart. But, Atlantic City and Las Vegas are examples of how this understanding can work.)
Where our lack of vision leads us is to not see how one of our many proverbs give much of what we need; how small grains can be collected and made into a bountiful pile. My radical thought would be that every Jamaican feels and is empowered to effect change. But, let’s get there slowly. Each municipality should have an ‘historic charge’ to highlight, say 20 prominent places of interest and erect signs for them. That should be done in consultation with the Jamaican National Heritage Trust, which is poorly funded, but has a better basis in this arena, and has the skeleton on such ideas in place. Now, we can see the committees forming and the bickering starting and little happening. But, we can cut that cord with a few creative strokes of a financial pen. We link action to future funding. I wont spell out the details, but by doing and verifying what’s been done in the past year, say, the treasury would unlock a portion on the next year’s budget. We can figure out the details of who and how verification would be done, but an idea like that can work.
I don’t want to ignore any historical societies that exist, but they need to play a game that involves a bigger section of society and be much more open and informative about what they do. I harbour no suspicions, but often say that when few people know what an organization does, then it’s as good as it not existing.
So, as I wander off to places that enjoy sharing that they can trace their history back even 10s of thousands of years, let’s see if our rock can make a fist of going back a few hundred years. Our Taino history would take us even further back, of course, so let’s not settle for the easy stuff 😊👍🏾🇯🇲