Pushing Portland - Big move underway to resurrect tourism in eastern parish
An ambitious plan to return Portland to pride of place in Jamaica's tourism sector 'partied off' last Sunday as World Tourism Day was marked in the parish.
Organised by a quintet of friends called The Country Hoppers (three of whom are from Portland), Merritone Pon Di Rio Grande Again was held at the Rafter's Pavilion in St Margaret's Bay.
Popularly known as 'Rafter's Rest', Rafter's Pavilion was built by the Earl of Mansfield and is a major stop along the river course that was once part of a banana transportation chain from field to foreign consumers.
The boats left the Boundbrook Wharf in Port Antonio with the fruit and returned with scores of visitors. This was critical to the genesis of tourism which has become Jamaica's largest consistent official foreign exchange earner.
Approaching one and a half centuries after that exchange of peeling skins - bananas for sunburn - much of Jamaica's tourism has developed along Jamaica's north coast with sprawling, walled properties offering an all-inclusive experience.
But this is not a model that has caught on in Portland, and Jamaica's tourism pioneer parish sometimes seems stuck in its baby stages.
However, as Marcia Lawrence of The Country Hoppers explains, the little steps being taken with the parties are part of a larger plan to grow the Portland tourism product in a direction which fits the parish's character.
"The audience we are targeting is the more mature, persons for whom Sunday is a rest day," said Lawrence, who was head of Portland's Resort Board from 2010 to 2013.
"We want them to see Portland as a place they can go to unwind and relax. We hope that they can see Portland is not too far, so they can spend a night, then a weekend and a week."
The North Coast Highway has helped significantly and Lawrence said at the party last Sunday the people from Portland were joined by patrons from Montego Bay,
St James; Ocho Rios, St Ann; Kingston and St Thomas.
Still, she noted, with some irony, that "in the early days we did not have the highway, but Portland was the tourism place in Jamaica".
The Country Hoppers began the party series at Sea Bell Resort, Hope Bay, in April before settling at the current riverside home, where the next event will be held on Sunday, October 25.
Apart from the monthly Rio Grande party, Lawrence pointed out a few of the high-profile events on Portland's annual calendar, including the Marlin Tournament, Fisherman's Regatta and Jerk Festival. "There is a consciousness among Portlanders to get people across the island visiting the parish," she said.
From outside Jamaica, Lawrence pointed out Portland attracting persons from two extremes of the tourism trade. At one end are the backpackers from Europe, who are attracted to the bed-and-breakfast option which many homeowners offer. Then there are the 'high rollers', many from the United States, who have their pick of places like the Geejam and Trident hotels. Among those coming on stream is a property of about 14 rooms in Ross Craig.
Lawrence said the laid-back attitude of Portlanders, who are largely unfazed by the rich and famous, makes a difference.
She used the community of Drapers, close to San San Beach, as an example. "You will pass anytime and see tourists sitting in the bar with the locals having a beer and they are comfortable," said Lawrence.
She added that the low crime rate in Portland facilitates the type of tourism the parish thrives on, crediting the police for their vigilance.
Ecotourism is an important part of the Portland mix, the Reach and Somerset Falls among the better-known attractions. In addition to San San, there are the Winnifred and Frenchman's Cove beaches.
Lawrence noted that there are sufficient churches of historical interest to open up the possibility of a tour of the buildings.
According to Lawrence, the regular rainfall, for which Portland is known, facilitates not only indoor relaxation, but also stimulates artistic creativity, such as writing and painting.
And the lady, who was born in Portland to a social worker mother and school principal father, is hoping that the creativity of the parish's residents will be stirred by events such as the Rio Grande parties.
"When we get serious with what we have - the culture, the heritage, the cuisine, the environment - it will help the parish move a far way along," said Lawrence.
"We are hoping that through these parties people will remember Portland and realise that there is a peace and quiet here."