Maurice Tomlinson, GUEST COLUMNIST
Jamaica was recently selected to chair the United Nations World Tourism Organization. And while our preparations for the crucial winter tourist season begin in earnest, it is ironic that our homophobic laws and practices cut the country off from a very lucrative segment of global tourism, namely, gay travellers.
Together, the estimated spending power of gay tourists is about US$140 billion annually. Just a portion of that sum could significantly reduce or even eliminate Jamaica's national debt, which currently stands at about US$20 billion.
The country's financial situation has steadily worsened since its Independence 51 years ago. Recently, our dollar, which was worth more than the US at Independence, crossed a psychological barrier and is now valued less than one US cent.
Thanks in part to our spiralling debt and worsening economy, we have had to enter into yet another painful agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Some may recall how we bid farewell to the IMF a few years ago with much bravado. Now we are back with our tails between our legs begging for assistance.
Meanwhile, several Caribbean nations that recognise the tremendous value of the pink tourist dollar are aggressively marketing themselves as gay-friendly destinations. For example, Curaçao will be holding its first-ever national gay pride this week, and the event is being supported by the government.
Even countries with anti-gay laws like St Lucia and Dominica have welcomed gay cruises. Many taxi drivers I have met in these countries claim that gay tourists are huge tippers, and craft vendors rejoice as their exquisite souvenirs fly out of their stalls.
An amusing story was told to me by one store owner in Dominica, who said she loved gay tourists as they always bought out her entire stock of sarongs!
Additionally, a police officer who moonlights as a taxi driver in St Lucia recently shared with me that he welcomes gay cruises to his island. He related that on the last occasion that such a cruise visited the country, he went to the port and saw many cabbies standing around complaining bitterly about the fact that a ship full of homosexuals had been allowed to dock.
These drivers steadfastly refused to transport the gay travellers, while this police officer loaded his tour bus and took them all on an island tour. He shared that the only step he took to 'insulate' himself from the homosexuals was to turn up his van's rear-view mirror so that his sensibilities would not be offended by anything going on in the back seat!
After a successful day touring the beautiful island, he returned his passengers to the ship and received, as he puts it, the largest tip he has ever got. Now, he is anxious for more gay cruises!
Despite the potential financial windfall from gay tourism, the Jamaican Government desperately clings to an archaic British-imposed colonial law as a sign of our 'Independence'. This act of national suicide is being carried out to appease the island's powerful fundamentalist religious groups whose leaders live palatial lives from the tithes and offerings of an increasingly poor and struggling Jamaican populace. But, at least they have the 'luxury' of their bigotry!
The whole situation would be hilarious, if it weren't so desperately tragic.
While we allow blind ideology to trump practicality, northerners are busy planning their winter escapes. However, recent media reports of unrelenting homophobic attacks and the seeming unwillingness of the Government to do anything to curtail them are causing many potential tourists to look away from Jamaica.
I have personally been contacted by travel agents who indicated that when guests request Jamaican holiday packages, they actively dissuade them. A sad fact is that there is an unofficial boycott of Jamaican tourism in place as a result of our infamous homophobia. We are just not willing to accept this fact or to do anything about it.
Maurice Tomlinson is an attorney-at-law and gay-rights campaigner. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.