Thu | Jul 2, 2020

We’ve been living under COVID for years, say craft merchants

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2020 | 12:00 AMJanet Silvera - Senior Gleaner Writer
Melody Haughton, president, Harbour Street Craft Market in Montego Bay, St James.
Carol McLennon, vice-president of the Montego Bay-based Habour Street Craft Market.
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WESTERN BUREAU:

Craft vendors across the island who have been for years struggling to get a share of the multibillion-dollar tourism pie say that the current coronavirus pandemic has now robbed them of the occasional crumb they would get from the table.

“This is COVID-19. We were living under these conditions from COVID-1 till we reach 19 now,” Carol McLennon, vice-president of the Harbour Street Craft Market in Montego Bay, St James, summed up the dire situation.

McLennon and 449 other merchants in the popular craft market have been out of business since Jamaica’s strict measures implemented to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in the island crippled the tourism industry.

Even as they look forward to the reopening of the sector in a matter of days, the craft merchants know it can’t be business as usual. They are introducing a number of initiatives aimed at boosting their self-reliance, having lost faith in an industry that promised them a living.

“For years, we have been promised access to the tourism pie, but not even the crumbs we are given off the table, and we are Jamaicans. We are not aliens. We have a right to the industry. We are not looking for pity, we deserve to get something out of this,” McLennon lamented.

She said her cry is reflective of the concerns expressed by merchants in Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios, Falmouth and Port Antonio – the island’s main tourism centres.

RIGHTFUL INHERITANCE

“We sit here weeks after weeks and watch tourists come off the ships, and when you look in the craft market, everybody sleeping because we are the last stop on their itinerary, while others are raking in so much money from the industry,” McLennon lamented, adding that she was longing for the day when Jamaicans would get their rightful inheritance from an industry they built.

“Nobody wanted craft when it started. I had to develop my craft just to stay alive. All of a sudden the big players find out that two dollars in a it – the almighty US dollar – and now everybody want to take it from us. That cannot be fair,” she complained.

Her counterpart, Melody Haughton, president of the market, concurred, taking the issue to another level, revealing that they were hoping to diversify their offerings during the fallout.

“Our aim is to be self-reliant, and already we are in talks with LASCO Foundation’s Dr Rosalea Hamilton, who has offered to assist with entrepreneurship by giving products to us at cost so we can sell it back and have a profit going,” she said.

EXPLORING OTHER VENTURES

Others frustrated at the lack of earnings from the craft trade have ventured into small farming, including chicken rearing.

“We have one person who is supplying chicken at this time to us at a reasonable rate. We have a man who does vegetables, supplying the craft traders at a cheaper cost, taking some of the burden off us,” Haughton told The Sunday Gleaner.

She explained that they were still waiting to see if they would benefit from the Government’s COVID-19 relief programme so that they can invest the funds into new projects.

“From where I stand, I see other players are very positive, but we are at the end of the tail, and know it won’t be any time soon before tourism returns. Therefore, I encourage my traders to get involved in other areas,” Haughton advised.

“We needed changes before and now it is worse,” she added, telling The Sunday Gleaner that she has asked for audience with Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett. “We must make these adjustments so that the industry will be viable to us as craft traders, because when tourism is booming year to year, others will be doing real good everywhere else, but the craft traders are yet to give their testimony of having a good day.”

janet.silvera@gleanerjm.com