By Garwin Davis,
GOVERNMENT MINISTERS are in Montego Bay today for a two-day meeting in "solidarity with tourism interests," but they are here against the backdrop of an increase in gun violence and gang warfare in the second city.
Since last week there have been a series of violent flare-ups resulting in a number of killings in the tourist resort. These crimes have pushed the western city's murder tally so far this year to 48, almost doubling the 26 recorded for the same period last year.
The meetings, which will be held at both the Ritz Carlton and Holiday Inn resorts and will include the Government's weekly executive and Cabinet discussions, have been shifted to Montego Bay this week as a "symbolic gesture". Cabinet ministers, private sector leaders and tourism interests are also expected to discuss the extent of the damage done to the vital tourism sector following the violence in West Kingston earlier this month which claimed the lives of at least 25 persons. The disturbance also received widespread international attention in the foreign media, and already some hoteliers are reporting a high level of cancellation.
On the agenda will be Tourism Minister Portia Simpson Miller's request for US$20 million to assist the sector in the aftermath of the West Kingston gun battle and the need to counter the wave of negative international publicity.
Delano Franklyn, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson's advisor, told The Gleaner yesterday the decision to have Cabinet's weekly meeting in Western Jamaica was specifically to hear from tourism interests how the sector will move forward following the negative publicity.
"The holding of Cabinet meeting in Montego Bay and on the north coast in particular, is a signal as to the importance given to the tourism sector by the Government and the Prime Minister in particular," he said.
Meanwhile, Gleaner sources say so far, Cabinet has approved only US$5 million of the Minister's requested figure, and will discuss the balance during the Montego Bay meetings.
But even while the Government is lending its support to tourism, crime is a major agenda item for Montegonians in general.
Since last week, there have been five reported murders in the city, the latest being Michael Davis, Assistant Financial Controller at the Coral Cliff Hotel and Entertainment Resort. Four illegal guns have also been recovered in recent days, bringing the total to 34 for the year.
The violent incidents are causing great concern on the part of residents and business interests, many of whom are of the view that the tourism industry will be seriously affected. They note that the country's game plan has always been to separate violence in Kingston from the relative serenity of the tourist resort areas which, according to them, is now being shattered by recent events in Montego Bay.
According to Mark Kerr-Jarret, President of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce, "Crime and tourism do not go hand in hand and I am afraid that if the crime rate continues to climb like this then we are really in for some very rough times." Mr. Kerr-Jarrett, whose organisation has in the past called for additional police officers to be placed on the streets of Montego Bay, said that the Montego Bay Chamber has been having regular discussions with the authorities to see how best to address the problem.
Others are hoping that the government will take the opportunity during their two days of meetings to recognise the seriousness of the situation and the potential it has to destroy tourism. "I am hoping for the country's sake that the Government has recognised the magnitude of the situation," said Ed Bartlett, opposition spokeperson on tourism. "As I have said before, crime and violence are threatening to destroy the sector. More than anything else, they have served to tarnish the country's image overseas and as the Tourism Minister rightly stated, what we are now promoting is damaged goods. The entire Cabinet is now in Montego Bay to show solidarity with tourism interests, well, let's see how serious they really are."
Josef Forstmayer, newly elected President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) in noting that his organisation was fully behind the minister, said that he was very concerned about the upsurge in violence in Montego Bay and that it had to be quelled quickly. He said that while it was important to note that there was nothing to indicate that it was directed at visitors, the country could ill-afford to have these kinds of happenings continuing to dominate the headlines. The JHTA head sees drugs and the battle for turf dominance as the leading facets behind the recent violent upsurge in the city.