Certain things rile me for their blatant insensitivity for the mass of people at whom they are addressed. That’s why I got riled up when I saw the Ministry of Tourism was launching a ‘Rediscover Jamaica’ programme this week to make residents a ‘priority at this time’.

It had a launch party midweek, virtually.

Several things were just downright offensive in my mind. First, was that now was the time to see Jamaicans as a priority; when the bottom was falling out of the market because of a global pandemic and the seeming low-hanging fruit of Americans wanting to sample ‘paradise’ was no longer dangling within reach.

Second, many also wonder why the primary strategy after the country had been locked down was not to open up the tourist sector first to locals, to give a chance to test out many of the protocols with a population less likely to present COVID-19 health issues than arrivals from overseas, especially from the current epicentre of the pandemic, the USA.

From 2013, when I came back to Jamaica, one constant I’d noticed was the feeling many Jamaicans expressed that they were often seen as 2nd class citizens in their own country when it came to tourism facilities. Yes, some facilities offer discounts for locals, with the showing of a local ID like a driver’s licence, and it often extended to the ‘family’ of the person concerned. That made it nice to share such discount prices with other foreign visitors, who have budgets to consider. So, I know that’s true of north coast features such as Dunn’s River Falls. But, many people felt that they were often seen as unwelcome in the more numerous hotels. But, lower prices for locals at tourist amenities/facilities is a common feature in many countries that have significant foreign tourism markets. This can even be a feature at places like restaurants. 

I experienced the 2nd class citizen feeling personally at Riu, Ocho Rios, when visiting my cousins staying there from England. I had to leave my driver’s licence at the security desk at the entrance post. I was told firmly that I was not allowed to go beyond the lobby; not so surprising, in an all-inclusive, where they fear people may want to enjoy some freebies. But, there’s a way to convey messages, and the hostility of the delivery left me stunned, and I let the manager know it. I also recall the unhelpful attitude in trying to locate my cousin, and a little run-around getting to call her room. After we met, and exchanged some pleasantries, I headed out and went to Scotchies to grab something to eat and swore I would never set foot in the hotel again. Ironically, the nearest I came to that hotel again, was when some Barbadian-Canadian friends came to stay at a villa adjacent to it.

I’ve also had it with another resort in Runaway Bay, where cousins from England were staying, and I let the manager know that I’d blackball the place if I heard any complaints from my cousins. They had a great time. I wasn’t able to join them for breakfast there, but I just popped into Runaway Bay for a good Jamaican breakfast and came back to play golf. 🙂

When we lived in Barbados, we enjoyed our first staycation, when the country launched a programme in 2009 to boost the tourism sector during the global recession. One feature was ‘To lessen the perception that locals paid more than foreign visitors for the same hotel room or activity and attraction.’ We had a great few days at Cobblers Cove, at a discounted rate, and all the amenities and facilities were on offer as normal. That’s been a feature of living in Barbados ever since. You can get the measure by searching the Internet for ‘staycation, Barbados’.

So, I was surprised to not see something similar in Jamaica, almost a decade later.

But, it’s important to note that Barbados addressed upfront the fact and perception that locals were being exploited relative to foreigners. Even if the instances are few, it’s a perception to staunch in a country and culture that has problems already in differentiating between service and servitude.

The Experience Jamaica’ programme was introduced in 2009, but it was a partial programme that ended and resumed each year, and so probably passed many by. That impression was confirmed when the minister of tourism promoted the idea of staycation in a low key way in 2018, by taking a local vacation and telling us what a good idea it was to enjoy our own island. I suspect many missed that, too, not least because it didn’t seem as important or as worthy of much visible promotion as say opening up Port Royal for cruise ships earlier this year.

Fast forward to March this year and the global pandemic shuts down travel and more and Jamaica is now facing a winter chill in tourism like it never has before. Help!

The touting of new records for arrivals in 2019, now well over 4 million a year and revenues around US$ 3 billion, now seems hollow when the new epicentre of COVID-19 is the USA, from which some 3/4 of arrivals originate. The importance of tourism to the national economy, is well known in terms of its contribution to GDP (about 1/3, directly and indirectly), jobs, foreign exchange, linkages to other activities, and overall good image. 

Jamaica works hard to retain its image as a slow adaptor and taking its assets for granted, and sometimes you wonder what policy makers and practioners see going on around them that makes they feel they are somehow immune to the same problems.

Barbados has tourism business of just over 2 million visitors (about 40% from the UK, followed by the USA and Canada) and over US$ 1 billion in revenue. Tourism is its main industry and contributes about 12% of GDP. It’s population is much smaller than Jamaica’s at about 300,000. But, for Jamaica to need to see another economic crisis as its trigger to pull out its finger and generate substantial local tourism is beyond laughable.

My wife has to visit and stay at hotels in Jamaica for work sometimes and I sometimes go with her. We’ve seen enough of how locals are treated, even if in some ‘privileged’ position. We’ve also taken our own vacations on the island, choosing when and where to go, mainly in villas, but also in some of our all-inclusive resorts, which work out well when you’re taking two or more children. We know how costly it can be to self-cater. We have a good idea of value for money when considering what Jamaica offers relative to other Caribbean islands and worldwide. We enjoy a few days’ holidays in Jamaica, often not during holidays, and have also seen that even in the lowest of low seasons, residents don’t get much if any consideration in terms of prices. We can argue the economics of differential pricing, but we also have the simple optics of residents, often tax payers, who’ve funded subsidies for tourism, getting little back. It’s well past time for that to change!