Editorial | Confronting a potential crisis
In the aftermath of the October gunpoint rape of two female guests by an employee of a St James hotel, Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett ordered a security audit of the industry. Ten days ago, he announced that an American tourism security expert, Peter Turlow, has been engaged to help in the process.
"We want to make it clear that the ministry is moving aggressively through its destination-assurance strategy to continue the process of maintaining Jamaica as a safe, secure, and seamless destination ... ," the minister said.
Generally, we support the initiative. The situation, however, demands more than new systems and apparatuses to ensure the physical safety of guests at Jamaica's hotels and tourism attractions. In that respect, the review commissioned by Minister Bartlett must include analyses of the attitude of Jamaicans towards tourists and tourism, and how their findings should inform a multidisciplinary, multisectoral response to a looming crisis with potentially grave economic and social consequences. Tourism long ago won the economic argument in Jamaica. It is a sustainable business. In 2017, Jamaica hosted 4.3 million visitors, more than half of who were people who vacationed at hotels. More than a million, or over two-thirds, of these guests were Americans. The industry grossed more than US$3 billion, employs in excess of 30,000 people, and accounts for around eight per cent of gross domestic product. Its potential for increasing its contribution to national output is great, if it becomes more deeply integrated with other sectors of the economy.
But in the wake of the St James rape, when one of the victims shot the alleged attacker, a raft of stories in US newspapers, led by the Detroit Free Press, have suggested a culture of sexual assault and harassment at Jamaican resorts and of industry executives being more concerned with preventing reputational damage and economic loss than ensuring the psychological well-being of their guests. Law-enforcement authorities, too, are painted as insensitive.
This perception is not limited to reporting by the press. The US State Department, which reported 78 cases of rape of Americans in Jamaica in the seven years to 2017, called it a matter of "historic concern" in need of "forceful investigation and follow-up by the hotels ... the police and other security officials".
In the context of 20 million American tourists over the last seven years, as Mr Bartlett noted, 78 assaults during that period are, objectively and technically, infinitesimal. But looked at differently, that's one case a month of rape, excluding the many other cases, as the Free Press suggested, which were either not reported or were settled. In any event, sexual assault can be deeply traumatic for the victim, whose experience shouldn't be minimised in statistical data.
We, of course, do not discount that some of the cases against hotel employees may be fabrications or exaggerated claims to mask behavioural lapses or other motives. But it is also true that Jamaica has a major problem of crime, including rape, as well as male attitudes towards sexual relationships that often do not comport with emerging norms. Vetting notwithstanding, the persons employed in hotels are shaped in the same culture that delivered the prevailing attitudes. So, these are not problems solely for Mr Bartlett's Tourism Working Group and Mr Turlow. Nor can there be a lasting solution for the tourist sector if the problems are not fixed for the wider society.
In the short term, the situation requires a frank discourse between tourism interests and the authorities on how they have addressed complaints in the past and for zero tolerance against sexual assaults. The book must be aggressively thrown at perpetrators. The fear of a negative impact from open acknowledgement of the problem is likely to be overstated.
More broadly, tourism interests, the education, labour and health ministries, and law-enforcement agencies should fashion a robust narrative against rape and related social ills, and have it delivered in schools and other institutions as part of a campaign towards strengthening social values.