Sat | Nov 17, 2018

Beienetch Watson | Rethinking Jamaica’s Tourism Strategy

Published:Tuesday | October 16, 2018 | 12:00 AMBeienetch Watson/Contributor
Doctor's Cave Beach, Montego Bay, St James.

The continuous extension of the 'enhanced security measures' in 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. In fact, the Senate's last unanimous approval for continuance through to November 1, 2018, should perhaps 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. Thankfully, the zone of special operation has not immediately dampened tourists' interest in Jamaica. In fact, stopover arrivals for the first six months of 2018 celebrated a 5.7 per cent year-to-date increase.

The excellent status of the tourism industry does, however, beg the question of why St James rank among the parishes with high murder rates. Of equal concern is the significant number of young Jamaicans who have opted to rely on scamming and other variants of crime as their primary source of income. It further prompts the concern of whether 'Montegonians' are benefiting from tourism and, just as important, if tourism in its current form can truly be the panacea for Jamaica's economic woes?

Sadly, the inequitable distribution of Jamaica's tourism spoils was appropriately raised by the United Nation World Tourism Organization's, Secretary General, Taleb Rifai, at last November's Global Tourism Conference, ironically hosted in the second city. Professor Rifai audaciously likened Jamaica's current tourism model to a "modernday 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. As Jamaica's tourism has really proven to be neither socially nor economically inclusive.

The time is thus nigh for Jamaica to move its development strategy beyond the walls of all-inclusive enclaves and on to our streets, and further into our communities.

 

... Wake up and smell the coffee

 

Tourism in the 21st century is shifting beyond 'sea, sun and sand. 'Arguably, the notion of Jamaica as a luxury, inclusive getaway 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 policymakers preparedness to accept it, there is a growing demand for a far more personal tourism experience.

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

Indeed, we are in an era where there is an exciting need among younger visitors to eat as Jamaicans do (Street Foods Saturdays, cook shops; corned pork, jerked chicken and authentic Jamaican patties); party at Weddy-Weddy, Uptown Mondayz; mix the pleasures of the beach with a hike up the Blue Mountain or into the Cockpit region; or blend an all-inclusive stay with a home stay in Trench Town, Treasure Beach or Flankers.

Notably, as the'culture craved' visitors participate in the shared economy, it will result in a greater proportion of the tourist dollar being directly reinvested in improving the lives of ordinary Jamaicans. The argument could be extended to suggest that this is a far more effective crime-prevention strategy than the failed promises of 'trickle down' or 'multiplier' 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 exclusively apprehensive. Hopefully, we smell the coffee before it's too late.

 

... The elephants along the coast

 

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

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. With that 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, while we revel in 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-1970s 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 managerial positions. Instead, Jamaicans appear to be better suited for menial employment statuses, leading to our youth shunning jobs in the sector, and suggestively resulting in increased levels of crime in western Jamaica.

Rather than inclusivity, these large properties seem to be driving up the degree of economic leakage. The United Nations Environment Programme suggests that the island retains less than five cents of every dollar earned by foreign-owned all-inclusives. Profits are usually repatriated to their home countries; while expatriate managers transfer their huge salaries to their offshore accounts. At the beginning of the 1990s, Jamaica was perhaps the only Caribbean island able to assert a retention of eighty-five cents out of every dollar. Today, less than 30 cents trickle into the local economy, raising real questions regarding the value of this resource-dependent industry.

The changing tides of global tourists' demand does, however, suggest that the continued failure to drastically re-valuate Jamaica's current non-inclusive model may soon result in dwindling arrivals and tourist expenditure. As the boomers decline, the millennials will rise. The country's policymakers surely recognise the imperatives of devising a pro-poor tourism strategy that will allow more direct benefits to Jamaicans, while also ensuring that the current boom doesn't end with the boomers. Similarly, while we celebrate the declining crime rates in St James, we must also realise that spreading the benefits of tourism will be the only way to effectively enhance the security measures in Montego Bay and its environs.

- Beienetch Watson is a lecturer in tourism, hospitality & events, College of Business and Management, School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at The University of Technology-Jamaica.