Paul Issa's long love affair with St Mary
Orantes Moore, Gleaner Writer
Hotelier and philanthropist Paul Issa has a longstanding relationship with St Mary that stretches back to his formative years.
In February 1949, his father, Abe, helped kick-start Jamaica's tourism industry by opening Tower Isle Hotel on the parish's picturesque north coast and developing the property into the island's first all-inclusive resort.
As deputy chairman of Couples Resorts, Issa helps manage four luxury boutique resorts but insists the hotel in St Mary, rebranded as Couples Tower Isle (CTI), remains close to his heart.
Speaking from the scenic CTI grounds, Issa told Rural Xpress: "When my father opened this hotel, people thought he was crazy because there were hardly any roads, and, aside from a few fishermen, there was nothing here.
"But it was very successful and put the area and Jamaica on the map as a tourist spot because air travel became very popular after World War II.
"The hotel opened the month I was born, so I came here regularly as a child. My mother had two cottages down the road where I would stay when I was too young to come to the hotel.
"On most vacations and some weekends, we came here or stayed at the cottages, so I kinda half grew up here. I've always had a soft spot for St Mary. It's a beautiful parish, but also one of the poorest, and it shouldn't be."
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, St Mary's economy thrived through agriculture, particularly banana production.
Although the sector has virtually collapsed over the past 100 years, Issa claims business-savvy local farmers can generate considerable profits for themselves and the parish by exploring new markets.
This may be true, but does he seriously believe an underdeveloped countryside parish has any place in a digital world driven by smart phones, social networks and e-commerce?
"Absolutely!" he declares. "The world economy has changed and I think if it is to prosper, Jamaica needs to focus on being a service economy - and not just in tourism.
"A hillside in St Mary would be the perfect place for a state-of-the-art hospital or assisted living facilities for elderly returnees and foreigners who want to come and live out their golden years here. And all of this St Mary lends itself to because of its natural beauty."
Similarly, Issa believes the decriminalisation and legalisation of marijuana would provide a massive boost to the nation's flagging economy.
He said: "It's a good thing and I think it will add to the tourism experience. If it's managed properly, it can lead to a great deal of increased tax revenue, which the Government needs. It's the way of the future and should be done now."
Since 2010, Issa's charity, the Issa Trust Foundation (ITF), has delivered health-care services to more than 60,000 children in rural areas through its annual medical missions and paediatric residency programme at CTI.
Issa believes the ITF, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, provides an essential service but would love to see the foundation's work supported by a campaign to engage more young people in education and technology.
He explained: "If I had the power, I would get tablets and resource centres into all the schools and see to it that an early-childhood education programme from pre-school through to 11 years old is designed, so when those kids hit 11 years old, they are aware of the world around them, switched on, and in touch with everything that's happening. It's a long-term investment, but I think that's what will pay the best dividends and where the focus should be."