It's an outrage! Tourist harrassment angers Ocho Rios business, community interests
Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
Ocho Rios, St Ann, the one-mile geographical pearl on Jamaica's north coast and a key part of the country's tourism product, is being submerged under the heavy weight of tourist harassment and business operators in the area say they are fed up.
As they addressed a recent Gleaner Editors' Forum at Mystic Ridge Hotel in the town, the frustration of stakeholders was evident.
Forum participants, drawn from across different sectors in the community, agreed for the most part that hustlers peddling their wares were boorish, aggressive and unwelcome.
Dr John McDowell, former president of the St Ann Chamber of Commerce, said despite the police's best efforts, tourist harassment is not under control.
Senior Superintendent of Police Yvonne Martin-Daley, commanding officer for the area, put the crime and hustling in context.
She said while crime was down in the parish, being the major commercial centre, the town of Ocho Rios contributed heavily.
"Ocho Rios serves as a hub between western and eastern Jamaica. Everybody passing through comes here. So we have not only the resident issues but the transient issues, for persons who come in or are passing through. So that contributes in a significant way to the crime situation in the parish," said Martin-Daley.
High levels of squatting
It was borne out during the forum that high levels of squatting in surrounding communities is also responsible for the hustlers who have been making things ugly for many who are trying to make an honest living.
"The anti-harassment team is working within the town to treat with the tourist situation, cruise passengers, to ensure that the experience of tourists who come off the vessels is good, and we all want Jamaica to benefit," Martin-Daley said.
Custos of St Ann Norma Walters said the area was one of the country's chief tourism towns and, although much was achieved, greater improvement was needed, especially in the area of crime and harassment.
"For the number of ills we have, we cannot have a policeman for every citizen. We have to work on the consciousness," Walters said.
Marino Mafessanti, representative of the St Ann Chamber of Commerce, said many of the individuals who are considered part of the problem were not being utilised and, hence, were unable to see that they, like the business operators, have a stake in what happens in the town.
"We have created a port facility. The new beautification project. We are creating a stylised version of the area and, rather than inculcate and be inclusive of a lot of the population, we are looking at the solution to exclude them and say they are harassers," Mafessanti lamented. "We need to find a way to incorporate a lot of people and therefore if they have vested interest in the success, then a lot of the other problems such as harassment will fade away."
He said the harassment was a localised manifestation of a greater unemployment problem in the country.
Deputy Mayor Delroy Redway said the squatter communities impacted security, but the St Ann Parish Council was doing its best with the resources it had.
He, like Mafessanti, said the communities should become stakeholders.
"A first step in addressing the problem is for communities to become stakeholders in the product. Our education of the communities is far from perfect. We don't seem to share information and therefore we go outside of the system. So, the tourism product is there and the majority who depend on the trade, to sell a trinket or orange juice, don't see themselves as part of the system and come in as hustlers. Therefore, public education and interacting with the major stakeholders is critical," said Redway in pointing to a first step in solving the problem.
Mafessanti said harassment was absent in areas such as Falmouth, because hustlers were not allowed in the sterile enclave near the pier. He stated that if "tourists were not demanding weed from hustlers" no one would be offering the product.
Walters said the situation was out of control, largely because anti-harassment education programmes were not properly controlled in the area.
Hotelier Joe Issa said harassment was islandwide, noting he was harassed "twice as much in Kingston from windshield wipers" as he was in other parts of the island, including Negril, Westmoreland and Montego Bay, St James.
Dr Rohan Daley, councillor for Ocho Rios, said the area was a gem but, for the last decade and half, things have turned ugly.
"There is some alien behaviour and it seems that individuals have lost their moral compass. Much of the problem of harassment we have here is from outsiders coming here to harass tourists. For a resort town, we need to create something better," Daley said.
Martin-Daley said the police could not stop anyone from plying their trade in any resort town, but they must do so in designated areas.
Photos by Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer