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Rethinking Jamaica’s Tourism Strategy|

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

The resort town of Montego Bay and its environs is perhaps the greatest indication of tourism’s failure to improve the lives of ordinary Jamaicans. Indeed, the enhanced security measures in the resort town, extended through to May 2018, should compel all Jamaicans to once and for all address the elephants lining our north-western shores. There is little doubt that St. James is the island’s most tourism dependent parish. Yet, despite the boast of record breaking visitor arrivals amounting to almost 4.3 million in 2017, the tourist haven is impacted by incredible levels of youth disenfranchisement, under-employment and unemployment. St. James also leads among the number of young Jamaicans who have opted to rely on scamming and other variants of crime as their source of income.

This naturally begs the question of whether Montegonians are benefiting from tourism; or if tourism can truly be the claimed panacea for our economic woes. Indeed, the inequitable distribution of Jamaica’s tourism spoils was appropriately raised by the United Nation World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Secretary General, Taleb Rifai, at last November’s Global Tourism Conference, hosted ironically, in Montego Bay. Professor Rifai audaciously likened Jamaica’s current tourism model to a “modern day plantation.”

Unsurprisingly, the depiction ruffled more than a few feathers. However the analogy should perhaps be viewed as a serious call to rethink the current model and strategy of tourism development. The harsh comparison was certainly not without merit, especially in the context of an industry that has not proven socially nor economically inclusive. The time is thus nigh for us to move Jamaica’s tourism from behind the walls of the all-inclusives and onto our streets, and into our communities.

Wake up and Smell the Coffee

‘Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late one that is open” Graham Alexander Bell.

Tourism in the 21st century has long shifted beyond the beach. The notion of Jamaica as a luxury inclusive getaway is not only outmoded, but is as much in decline as the aging segment of inactive ‘baby boomers’ who desire the security and serenity of the quiet getaway resorts. Regardless of our policy makers preparedness to accept it, there is a growing demand for a far more personal tourism experience

So whilst we delight in a mere 5% annual increase in visitor arrival, Thailand, Japan, Croatia, Sweden and numerous other non-Caribbean destinations areas have been celebrating double digits growth for the last five years or more. These destinations have all crafted a modern tourism industry that celebrates cultural expressions and innovation, authencity and information technology.

In 2017, millennials not only comprised 69% of all travellers, but they also represented the fastest growing segment of international tourists. This so-called “Experience Generation” do not desire being shielded behind a wall of pretence where ‘they mix but do not mingle’ with the locals who make their beds, fix their drinks, and serve the mostly foreign cuisine prepared by an expat executive chef. Instead they desire to wake up to a freshly brewed cup from the world famous Blue Mountain and actively experience life as an albeit temporary Jamaican.

Jamaica’s tourism interest must be vastly more prepared to tear down the walls of protectionism securing foreign dominated big businesses and create a more inclusive industry centred on its people and our uniquely colourful culture as the era of package all-inclusive vacations slowly meanders down. Quite telling is the fact of an increasing number of travellers booking stays in private homes (Airbnb); eating as Jamaicans do (Street Foods Saturdays, cook shops; corn pork, jerk chicken and authentic Jamaican patties); partying at Weddy-Weddy, Uptown Mondayz, chillin at the Jazz downtown and the works; mixing the pleasures of the beach with a hike up the Blue Mountain or into the Cockpit region.

As the ‘culture craved’ visitors participate in the shared economy, it will result in a greater proportion of the tourist dollar being reinvested in improving the lives of ordinary Jamaican directly. The argument could be extended to suggest that this is perhaps a far more effective crime prevention strategy than the failed promises of ‘trickledown’ or ‘multiplier’ tourism economics.

Sadly though, we talk the talk, but when it comes to crafting and implementing policies aimed at a far more inclusive industry, we seem to be extremely apprehensive. Hopefully, we smell the coffee before it’s too late.

The Elephants along the Coast

This is by no means an anti all-inclusive discourse. In fact, Butch Stewart and John Issa ought to be venerated for hedging on brand Jamaica at a time when the multinationals fled from Manley’s nationalism campaign. Even more importantly, the hoteliers should be extolled for rescuing Jamaica’s ailing industry through their innovative adaptation of the Club Med’s all-inclusive concept into strong and enviable Ultra Inclusive and Exclusive brands that Sandals and Superclubs emerged as by the beginnings of the 1990s.

With this said, there are sufficient reasons for all Jamaicans to be concerned about the rise of the modern all-inclusive sector. Arguably, the advent of what may be gently referred to as the ‘Spanish Imposition” has ushered in a new phase of the plantation economy. Consequently, whilst we revel the efficacy of the island’s investment incentive schemes in attracting foreign direct investment in the hotel sector, very little is being openly said about the numerous related challenges that have emerged with the expansion of these mega chains.

This includes the very fact that our indigenous hotel sector that employed thousands of Jamaicans in varied capacities is now struggling to compete against much larger properties, whose socio-economic benefits to Jamaicans remain questionable. In fact, there is a growing perception that we have returned to the pre 1970’s employment dilemma. Therefore, though more Jamaicans are being hired as a consequence of the increasing room stock, even fewer are being given an opportunity for coveted management positions. Instead Jamaicans appear to be better suited for menial employment statuses, leading to our youth shunning jobs in the sector, and arguably leading to an increasing crime levels in Western Jamaica.

Rather than inclusivity, these large properties are driving up the degree of economic leakage. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests that the island retains less than five cents of every dollar earned by foreign owned all-inclusives. Profits are repatriated to their home countries; while expatriate managers transfer their huge salaries to their offshore accounts.

Even as we celebrate massive increases in cruise ship arrivals and stop over visitors, we quietly whisper about the phenomenal leakage from the industry. At the beginning of the 1990’s, Jamaica was perhaps the only Caribbean island able to assert a retention of eighty-five cents out of every dollar. Today, less than thirty cents is retained in the country. Thus raising real questions relating to the value of this resource dependent industry.

The changing tides of global tourists’ demand suggest that failure to drastically revaluate Jamaica’s current non-inclusive model of tourism may soon result in dwindling arrivals and tourist expenditure. As the boomers decline, the millennials will rise. The country’s policy makers surely recognize the imperatives of devising a pro-poor inclusive industry that will allow more direct benefits while also ensuring that the current tourism boom doesn’t end with the boomers.

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