Tourism in Jamaica-tendentious to the last

Jamaica’s relationship with tourism is a sort of social elephant in the room. My current motivation to explore that tendentious issue is partly that I’ve been hosting friends from France and been experiencing first-hand some of what Jamaica offers foreign visitors directly and what can be made of interest to them and anyone in general. I’ll write separately about that after they’ve gone this week and incidentally before I go off on a trip overseas.

I’ve said before that I was never a fan of tourism as an economic development base–given its tendency to make many think its a source of easy money, so it carries many of the problems of windfall gains–but can understand its attractiveness if only from the simple standpoint of exploiting comparative advantages that nature and location have made more pertinent. I also wrote recently that one of the major changes in modern life was the ease and relative cheapness of international travel. Without that, countries like Jamaica would have remained the playground of mainly the rich and famous; they’re still important, but well-outnumbered by millions of ‘ordinary’ people seeking a getaway. That might have been a better thing in hindsight for the nature and quality of the product–if you think that a niche focused on quality rather than quantity is somehow going to be better–but an inevitable outcome of that would have been a much lower level of income flowing from visitors to the country overall. Whatever the retention rate of income from foreign visits, the overall flows do matter if only in a temporary way, but also in terms of its potential–people see opportunities to make money, even though they may not exploit them well or at all. But, the spread of mass tourism inevitability changes the relationship between host and visitors in many ways, and in the case of Jamaica, in a not too good way, I venture. We’ve integrated poorly the needs of the tourism sector in areas like food supply and noticeably (though I have no clear idea how it could have been managed well otherwise) in terms of the potential social relationships between hosts and visitors.

One of my issues with mass tourism for developing countries is the impact that sudden large injections of income have on social relationships. At best, every member of the host population could gain on average the same amount from visitors (if, say, all foreign spending went into a massive national pot and was then distributed evenly–Utopian thinking, maybe). At worst, a few individuals, including those who own directly or indirectly tourism assets, gain from the massive flows. They then have the choice of sharing part or all of their gains. Jamaica has had a bit of both, because some revenues from tourism (say, in the form of taxes on the sector) flow into the national treasury and are then available (mainly to redevelop the sector, but, in principle, it could be used more widely). However, a lot of revenue flows all over the place because workers in the sector gain wages, vendors of all sorts gain revenues from selling to tourism enterprises or to visitors directly, both legal and illegal products. From all of that, some have gained a little, while others have gained a lot. I do not have data on how gross tourism revenues have been shared over the nation or how the net revenues have been settled and what are the clear identifiable gains from that. In the absence of such data–and they are hard to compile for many reasons, including the obvious one that illegal activities are generally well hidden. But, one can adduce or deduce by proxy some of the impact by looking at things such as the nature, volume and style of local housing developments in areas close to tourism centres. Some of that is genuine speculative development for rent or ownership by foreigners (or even local visitors). Some may be development for local ownership based on gains from tourism-related activities. Some may be development financed by based on gains from foreign travel, whether as part of the diaspora or as migrant workers. Some seems directed to the needs of workers in the sector. And so on. Now, some will have views on whether some or all of this should be controlled or directed by public policy, and feel that bad results should then be laid at the hand of a less-than-caring government. Take that there if you wish.

Such developments point to what kind of chasm tourism can create in countries. The visual message is that ‘there is money to be made’. So, many will flock to the sector to try to get their share. It’s evident in industrialized or richer countries, too. So, the influx of oil wealth from the Arabian Gulf has transformed many parts of the world, notably the property market in the UK. When OPEC imposed its embargo on oil exports in 1973 against countries supporting Israel (including the UK) and oil prices quadrupled in 1974, who foresaw what would happen to the sudden surge of income and that the UK, say, would be one of its major beneficiaries? London already had attractive assets, including property, so prudent investment management would have had some of them on the ‘shopping list’. Voila! Property boom in prime parts of London. More sales of luxury cars. More sales at swanky department stores, etc. More travel through Heathrow. More signs in Arabic. Who won? Who lost?

When mass visiting by foreigners is a ‘natural’ or spontaneous part of a country’s development it’s impact can be quite different. Mainly, when visitors tend to just appreciate what is already in place it tends to be more readily understood that no special effort has really gone into the development. So, British history is well known, and many historical artefacts have been treasured and well-maintained, so people visiting them was a feature long before mass foreign tourism came into being. Now, with competition, it happens that enhancements get put in place (parking, rest facilities, marketing of various kinds, etc.) and ancillary developments occur (lodgings may be in demand, food and drink sales may increase dramatically, etc.).

Tourism (or the mere influx of visitors) tends to highlight social divisions, especially in terms of income and access, but also in terms of feelings such as xenophobia in particular or resentment in general (ask about the experiences of Jamaicans who are returning residents–not a pretty picture). You get the chance to compare and contrast, and to harbour feelings about ownership and rights to national patrimony. This is true almost universally. The Swiss, say, despite their wealth, may prefer to keep the niceness of their lifestyles for themselves. Alright, come if you must, but don’t stay too long and please leave quietly. 🙂 So, resentment of visitors is a common outcome. When the income gaps between hosts and visitors are large, or perceived to be such, that resentment can be more widespread and lead to various forms of social conflict, one of the more obvious being the propensity of poorer people to extract from the wealthier. That can be done subtlety (ie hoping that generosity will flow freely) or brutally (through various forms of criminality). So, foreign visitors have to tread carefully, knowing they are targets–and this applies universally, so don’t get all huffy about how white people want to think badly of black people. My first sight of a mugging was in Florence, Italy, in the 1970s, when I saw motor scooter riders ripping handbags off the shoulders of pedestrians in the city centre. Motor scooter muggers True white-on-white crime. Such things are now commonplace in many cities, or wherever large people circulate. Some places will be affected less, because of general local attitudes to crimes against people, others may suffer worse. So, whether in our local market, the extraction comes in the form of expecting generous tips or selling services for well-over reasonable local prices or from selling services like drugs and sex, extraction processes are underway. Now, almost inevitably, such extraction possibilities will attract many, including those involved in organized crime.

Oddly, this social division may not leave either set of parties discontented. Some tourists live in a world of guilt about what their travels represent and are relatively unfazed by the thought of their giving more money to locals; they know the world is unfair and even though they add to that on one hand, some try to redress the balance on the other hand. Of course, that can get near-ridiculous and also set off another wave of unreal expectations. So, the tourists who are ready to give up a set of golf clubs, or their nice expensive holiday clothes, or the rest of the (seemingly worthless) local money, naturally leave the impression that ‘these people have more money than sense’. I’m not sure if they would agree with a view held by some in Jamaica, or elsewhere, say, that scamming is a form of (justifiable) reparations.

My own feeling about Jamaican mass tourism is also that it’s something that the majority of the population has never really bought into. With its focus largely on coastal areas in the north of the country, those who were not in those areas did not feel connected to it. These were essentially rural areas whose main form of economic survival was in decline (say, sugar cane growing) and with relatively small populations (despite its being called the ‘second city’, Montego Bay is no more than a small town). It’s getting an international airport that served North American and European needs to get easy access to sun and sea made sense but really din’t impact much the rest of the country. As focus changed and other areas started to feature (especially on the south coast), naturally more people saw the possibility of a stake in the sector, especially as its nature was different–being more rustic and generally smaller scale. The markets aren’t the same in many ways. Kingston was also different given that much of its foreign tourism was based around business rather than leisure, but it also offered more that was already available in terms of entertainment and history etc; yet, it was never really much exploited as a broad leisure tourist destination (though that may be changing with the sight of cruise ships docking in Kingston Harbour setting off waves of speculation and excitement).

At a glance, literally, one can see what tourism means in Jamaica. Travel to Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, for example, and see people dressed in the uniforms of hotels and leisure establishments; also, you see streams of taxis or minibuses ready to take visitors to points of interest. You see tourists out trying to enjoy themselves, often doing things no self-respecting local person would do, like jogging at midday :). You see also the other associated activities, depending on time of day, vendors of all sorts of things (and let’s not be coy about what’s for sale 🙂 ). In some areas of Montego Bay, especially, you see an upsurge in construction. So, you can see where a lot of money is flowing into local pockets. In Kingston, you’re hard pressed to see a similar set of sights aimed at visitors, except at the airport. Even our major sights in Kingston (such at the Bob Marley Museum or Devon House) are not easily identifiable as tourist attractions if one were to look for uniformed personnel. This is more striking when you venture to places such as Port Royal or Rockfort Mineral Baths. Who would know that these are major points of interest? Venture to the south coast and you see a picture that’s a mix of the north coast centres and Kingston: few places have any notable indication that they are really attractions for tourists. To me, this is nice as they are meant to be ‘off the beaten track’. But, even Jamaicans can miss them or never know of their existence. I find it funny who knows about ‘Border’ (where the parishes of St. Elizabeth and Westmoreland meet) and the place to get great fried fish and bammy. Last week, I took some visitors to Gut River, one of the most beautiful natural sights I’ve ever seen, on a road so bad that only the brave or fools would venture 🙂 Milk River is well-known and now well-signed and now with a better road than before. But, low-key it remains. At the west end, we have Negril, with it’s hotel strip (akin to Mobay) and Bohemian reputation. If you reach that far, then you know what you’re looking for.

But, here we are in this awkward ‘marriage’. Tourism has allowed Jamaicans to have more money flowing into our island. It has enhanced visibility on a global level. The best that Jamaica offers in terms of natural beauty is hard to beat. The worst we offer (say in terms of service and traffic issues) is often not so unusual for those who travel. We have a ‘face’ that is shown to visitors that’s often welcoming and generous. We have all-year-round what many crave–sunshine. Our food is more than tasty and interesting. We undersell our history, badly. We undersell our culture, too, besides our music and our sporting reputation. We have people who feel distant from tourism and dissed by it, too. But, if we’re honest, we live in a country that distances many of us and disses many of us as a matter of routine.

But, guess what? If ever a piece of national development showed what public disengagement from policy-making means, then look at tourism. If there was a national debate on the way forward for the sector, then please tell me when and how widely it was held. That some people now feel saddled with something that they don’t like tells me more about what I believe is the compliant even even complicit tendencies of many Jamaicans, who often only feel push to express views when they feel their corns being stamped on. It’s one of many areas where the population had little input to the shaping of what was really theirs to influence. Now, standing around and scratching heads and wondering how things turned out so? Those whose motives and knowledge helped craft a monster now feeding its crime-driven lust should stand in shame but no less should be the shame of those citizens who thought they too could take a bite of that poisoned fruit that was offered.

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. :)

One thought on “Tourism in Jamaica-tendentious to the last”

Comments are closed.