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close this bookThe Courier N 138 - March - April 1993 Dossier: Africa's New Democracies - Country Reports : Jamaica - Zambia (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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close this folderJamaica
View the documentHarnessing the winds of change
View the documentP.J. Patterson - The new man at the helm
View the documentInterview with Senator David Coore, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade
View the documentHospitality is big business - Jamaica's tourist sector
View the documentInterview with Bruce Gokling Chairman of the Jamaica Labour Party
View the documentDancing to a Jamaican tune
View the documentProfile
View the documentCooperation with the European Community

Hospitality is big business - Jamaica's tourist sector

Interview by Simon HORNER

It does not take a mathematical genius to recognise that when an island with fewer than two and half million inhabitants welcomes more than 1.3 million visitors to its shores in a twelve month period, this means big business. In fact, tourism is the single most important sector of the Jamaican economy contributing almost a third of total receipts from goods and services. It is also the most important source of foreign exchange, and provides employment, directly or indirectly, for tens of thousands of Jamaicans.

In this article, we take a closer look at Jamaica's tourist industry with particular emphasis on the factors which have made it the most important economic sector in the country and on the challenges which it is facing in an evermore competitive global tourist market.

Beach attractions

There can be little doubt that, from the point of view of the natural environment, Jamaica has what it takes to attract holidaymakers in large numbers. Top of the list must be the beaches. Despite concerns over the possible health implications of exposure to the sun, the mainly light-skinned tourists from the rich (and cold) countries of the North seem to have lost none of their appetite for 'sun, sea and sand' vacations. Armed with their bottles of high-factor sun-cream, they migrate south in large numbers as the gloom of winter descends on the northern hemisphere and many choose to make their landfall in Jamaica. And who can deny the therapeutic effects of relaxing on a pristine beach of the finest white sand, with a glass of rum or fruit punch and one of the world's most pleasant natural swimming pools just a few paces away? But Jamaica has a great deal more to offer than just beaches. Despite its small size, it has a beautiful and rugged interior with mountains rising to a peak of more than 2000 metres. It has river gorges, water falls, cave systems, stunning bird life and an abundance of colourful flora whose lingering scents provide a constant reminder of the tropical setting. When the late Errol Flynn was forced by a storm to seek a haven for his yacht on Jamaica's shores, he was so captivated by the beauty around him that he chose to spend most of the remaining years of his life there. Few overseas tourists have that option, but the story underlines the country's potential for 'capturing' its visitors and inducing them to return year after year.

Good infrastructure

Of course Jamaica is not unique in its tropical beauty and nature alone cannot supply the needs of modern mass tourism. Proper accomodation, facilities for entertainment, good food and high quality service are all essential elements for a successful tourist venture and it is here that Jamaica seems to be offering a winning formula. In the resort areas on the north and west coasts, a great deal of money has been invested in tourist infrastructure from the main point of arrival at Sangster International Airport to the restaurants, hotels and villas where the visitors will wine, dine and (at the end of the day) recline. Jamaica is the third most popular holiday destination in the Caribbean after the Bahamas and the Dutch Antilles and this is reflected in the extensive infrastructure. It is noteworthy that local entrepreneurs have played a prominent part in developing the tourist product and the local staff who run the operations are well-trained and friendly.

Jamaicans are naturally gregarious and this is an important element in the equation as it means that visitors are made to feel genuinely welcome. The country also has a rich and vibrant culture. The natural sense of rhythm for which the Caribbean islander is renowned finds expression in reggae and calypso. The former is Jamaica's own unique contribution to contemporary music which was made famous by Bob Marley, and it provides a lively background in the bars and streets. The latter, which was first popularised by Harry Belafonte, belongs, strictly speaking, to Trinidad and even if it is frowned-on by some cultural purists, there is no doubting its popularity with many visitors.

The negative side

Of course, perfection is an aspiration that can rarely be achieved and there are, as always, some negative elements which ought to be mentioned. The first, which is beyond the effective control of the authorities, is associated with the climate. It is ironic that a country whose principal attraction is its idyllic weather should be thus afflicted, but Jamaica is in the hurricane zone and during the season from June to October, there is always the risk that it will be battered by a fierce storm. To be fair, it is rare for the island to experience the full and damaging force of a tropical storm-the last bad one was Hurricane Gilbert in 1988-and the experience is more likely to be frightening than life-threatening. However, the indirect effects on tourism, as on other sectors of the economy, can be serious when the infrastructure sustains damage.

A second negative factor which, from the point of view of the authorities has attracted unwelcome attention in recent years, is the security situation. In common with many other countries, the problem of crime in Jamaica seems to be growing and there is concern about the capacity of the police to deal with it. Some tourists have been attacked and, in 1991, the US State Department issued a 'travel advisory' which certainly did not help Jamaica's image as a tourist destination. It is important, however, to put the problem into perspective. Much of the island's crime is associated with drugs, poverty and social conditions in the poorer areas, and serious criminal acts tend to be concentrated in these locations. Security-particularly in the exclusive beach resorts-is relatively good, and the reality is that the average tourist is probably more at risk from a traffic accident in his home country as he drives to the airport for his flight to the Caribbean. This, of course, does not mean that the visitor should not take sensible precautions.

From the perspective of the tourist industry, the island's flourishing drug trade appears to present something of a dilemma. There is no question of the authorities openly sanctioning the activity but neither do they appear to be 'striving too officiously' to stamp it out, to paraphrase a well-known legal expression. As a result, soft and reputedly not-so-soft drugs are widely available in the tourist areas. ( The Courier was approached on three separate occasions by young people offering to sell ganja during its recent 'Country Report' visit). It is a sad fact that for some tourists drug availability is a selling point when they choose their holiday destination. Conversely, for some Jamaicans, the trade provides a living in an economic environment where 'legitimate' work is in short supply. It should be understood, however, that offenders (both Jamaicans and foreign) are apprehended from time to time and the penalties can he severe.

Environmental worries

The growth of tourism over the past decade and a half- the number of visitors has trebled since 1976-combined with a more general awareness of 'green' issues, has also given rise to concerns about the environment. Large scale tourist developments, concentrated in sensitive coastal areas, will inevitably have an impact on local communities and wildlife habitats. Mr Roy Miller, who is Deputy Director of the Jamaica Tourist Board acknowledged these concerns when he spoke to The Courier and he emphasised the importance of developing 'eco-tourism' as a viable alternative. Although in its early stages, the first steps have already been taken with the launch in 1991 of the National Park System. New resort projects, particularly in areas such as Ocho Rios and Negril where substantial tourist developments are already in place, are also likely to be subject to more stringent environmental assessment in the future.

Keeping up with the competition

Jamaica was a popular destination for the well-to-do long before the growth of prosperity in Europe and North America engendered the phenomenon of mass tourism which we see today. But the country has had to adapt to meet the changing market in order to stay ahead of the emerging competition both in the Caribbean and elsewhere in an increasingly accessible world. The economic difficulties provoked by the slump in earnings from bauxite and alumina, the structural problems facing traditional agricultural exports and the oil shocks of the 1970s have at the same time increased Jamaica's dependence on tourism while reducing the scope of government to invest in the basic infrastructure vital to maintaining competitiveness.

Despite these difficulties, the government, with considerable help from its overseas partners, has maintained a capital investment programme which is designed to cope with the increase in tourist arrivals. Recent projects have included major upgrading of water and sewerage facilities at Montego Bay and Negril, improvements to the Northern Coastal Highway and the expansion of the terminal at Sangster International Airport. (It is generally acknowledged that a visitor's first and last impressions of a country are particularly important!) These investments should help Jamaica to maintain its position in the forefront of Caribbean tourism.

Local feelings

Jamaican warmth and hospitality have already been mentioned, but it is worth posing the question whether tourism provokes any resentment among the majority of Jamaicans who live outside the resorts. It is certainly true to say that a lot of money has gone into the tourist areas and the largest population concentration is in the Kingston metropolitan area, which sees few holidaymakers. The government is aware of the danger that it might be seen to favour the tourists at the expense of ordinary people and it strives to achieve a fair balance in its investment programmes.

There has been some criticism, notably from small independent operators such as restaurateurs and taxi firms, of the increasing trend towards 'all inclusive' resort holidays, in which the visitor is whisked from the airport to his exclusive hotel by the beach, only to emerge two weeks later to catch the return flight. Cruise passengers, who make up an increasing proportion of 'visitor arrivals' are also sometimes resented for the fact that they reputedly contribute little to the economy in their very brief visits to the island.

Responding to the first of these criticisms, the major hotel operators insist that they must offer what the holidaymaker wants if they are to attract and retain his or her custom. All-inclusive resort holidays are undoubtedly gaining in popularity. In addition, it is stressed that these operations still generate jobs as well as significant business for local entrepreneurs. In 1991, almost 23 000 people worked in the accomodation sector. Many more, employed in areas such as food and beverages, and construction, benefited indirectly. Regarding cruise ship passengers, who obviously spend no money on local accommodation, it is pointed out in their defence that they still bring in substantial amounts to the country overall. In 1991, they spent an average of US$73 each during their short stay. These are powerful economic arguments which are difficult to refute and it appears that the majority of Jamaicans seem to recognise this.

Some basic facts Jamaican tourism

Performance and prospects

As ever, the fortunes of the tourist sector are dependent on a wide range of factors, many of which are beyond the control of the industry or the island's government. Three quarters of the tourists who come to Jamaica are from the United States and Canada. In 1991, there was a significant drop in arrivals from both of these countries, apparently due to a combination of the Gulf War and the economic downturn. However, the figures for the first ten months of 1992 point to a recovery in this market.

The bulk of Jamaica's European holidaymakers come from the United Kingdom and they appear not to have been affected, either by Gulf War fears or by the deep recession in their own country. Indeed, the number of 'stopovers' increased by almost 7000 from 1990 to 1991 and the trend appears to have continued during 1992.

The big success stories for Jamaican tourism, however, are in the mainland European and Japanese markets. The number of European tourists (excluding those from the UK) almost doubled in 1991 to more than 70 000 and that figure had already been surpassed in the first ten months of 1992. In proportionate terms, the rise in Japanese visitors is even greater although the actual numbers are more modest (12 662 from January to October 1992).

The Jamaican Tourist Board obviously keeps a close eye on economic trends in its principal markets and, with indications of a recovery in North America but continuing economic gloom in Europe, more attention is likely to be devoted to the former, at least in the short term.

In the longer term, the industry seems certain to maintain its pre-eminent position in the Jamaican economy. New competitive challenges-perhaps from neighbouring Cuba, if and when it emerges from its cold war purdah-seem likely, while unforeseen natural disasters, or increasing security problems cannot be ruled out. But the remarkable success of the sector over the past two decades, during a period of sustained economic difficulties for the country as a whole, reveals a resilience and adaptability which bodes well for the future. S.H.