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Guides demand 'ransom'

Garwin Davis, Staff Reporter

WESTERN BUREAU -

TOUR guides are openly pressuring visitors for money at Dunn's River Falls in Ocho Rios, and several visitors, who said that they felt like hostages, are vowing never to return to the popular attraction.

Sunday Gleaner checks revealed that visitors are encouraged by the guides to leave their cameras with them before venturing up the falls. The climb, which starts at the beach end of the property, is done in groups.

A guide goes around and collects all the cameras. He then awaits the group at the fall's exit and collects what one tourist referred to as his "ransom" before handing over each camera. If the visitor doesn't have a camera, a tip is solicited.

Tourists, particularly cruise passengers, although complying with the demands of the tour guides, have been voicing their complaints to cruise officials and tour operators. American Matt Sauer, who toured Dunn's River on Friday, told The Sunday Gleaner that on trying to retrieve his camera from the tour guide, he felt like a "hostage trying to negotiate my own release." He said that at no time was it told to him that he had to pay money to get his camera back and that the practice was nothing short of deceit.

"I can understand people trying to make some money, but I don't believe this overt way of ripping people off is the right way to go," Mr. Sauer said. "We were told on the ship to expect this sort of thing, but until you get here one will not fully understand the magnitude of what is happening here."

Another visitor, Gary Ghems, also from the United States, agreed.

"This is a wonderful attraction, easily the best of its kind in the Caribbean," he said. "However, what is happening here is a major turn-off for a lot of visitors. We are made to feel as if we have to pay additional money for climbing the falls, which is not fair, considering that we have already paid a fee for the tour. This is simply an elaborate scam that maybe the authorities need to take a look at."

The practice, which has reportedly been going on for quite some time, is done in full view of everyone and has left many tourists infuriated.

"This is a rip off and we will never come back here," an angry visitor told The Sunday Gleaner last Thursday. "What have they done to be demanding money from us?"

Though there have been reports of visitors being told that they have to give as much as US$50 before their cameras would be returned to them, the highest denomination a Sunday Gleaner reporter saw exchanging hands last week, was a US$20 bill.

The practice, which industry players feel is harmful to tourism, has become a source of embarrassment for the management of the popular attraction.

Faith Thomas, general manager of the St. Ann Development Company (SADCo), which has jurisdiction over Dunn's River, said that she has heard about the allegations and was taking the necessary steps to alleviate the problem.

"The tour guides are on staff and are being paid a salary so no, they should not be doing this," she explained.

"Tips are not mandatory but should be done on a discretionary basis. Nobody is supposed to be holding anybody hostage and if this is really happening, then it cannot continue. We certainly do not want to be running this kind of facility."

Dunn's River is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in the country and a major foreign exchange earner. It was the scene of a major demonstration nearly three years ago when a majority of the staff protested against management's decision to fire two tour guides for allegedly defrauding guests. The demonstration lasted several days and cost the local economy millions of dollars.

Also rampant at the falls is hustling by pimps and touts, who operate with little or no monitoring from security officers.

Kumar Sujanani, vice president of the In Bond Merchant Association of Jamaica, said that for too long reports of tourists being mistreated at Dunn's River Falls have been ignored. He said the situation is seemingly out of control.

"I have heard about things far worst than those alleged activities," he said. "All one has to do is to read the comment sheet from the cruise lines."

Steve Nielson, vice president of Caribbean Affairs at Princess Cruises said in an earlier interview that the situation at Dunn's River Falls needed immediate attention and noted that "somebody needs to bite the bullets and address what is taking place there."

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