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Editorial | Rethinking Port Royal

Published:Tuesday | July 23, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Lingering environmental concerns notwithstanding, the Government, through the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ), is barrelling ahead with the long-standing plan to build a cruise ship facility on the Port Royal tombolo a few hundred metres east of the town centre and its historic sites.

The environmental impact assessment commissioned by the Port Authority is yet to be fully analysed by the relevant agencies or debated by interested parties. Yet, the PAJ is already embedding pilings to support a US$8-million floating pier and says that cruise liners should begin docking there by 2020. That’s a mere six months from now.

However, it is still not too late for the PAJ to hit pause and reconsider the project, especially whether Port Royal is the appropriate place for the cruise ship pier. That doesn’t mean the end of tourism in Port Royal.

There is no question about Port Royal’s attraction and colourful history. Founded in 1658, it was, by the late 17th century, the largest and most prosperous city in the Caribbean and a major hangout for marauding buccaneers, including the notorious Henry Morgan. Port Royal’s mythical status, and its importance as an underwater archeological site, is embellished by the fact that large chunks of the town were swallowed by the sea during a major earthquake in 1692.

Horatio Nelson, who was later to become England’s greatest naval hero, was, as a young officer, stationed there in the late 1770s.

That was before his subsequent move, in 1784, to an English naval base in Antigua that today bears Nelson’s name and is one of the Caribbean’s top historic attractions with the kind of global appeal that Port Royal, too, deserves.

Indeed, the idea of developing Port Royal and recapturing some of its mythic past isn’t new. More than seven and a half decades ago, in 1952, the year after a private group called the Society of Friends of English Harbour began to rescue Nelson’s old haunt in Antigua, Jamaica’s legislature passed a bill to establish the Port Royal Brotherhood, to which all land and buildings in an area were ceded. The former property owners were, in exchange, given shares in the Brotherhood, which was made responsible for all matters relating to the layout, maintenance and improvement of streets and subdivisions of Port Royal. It also has the power to raise capital or otherwise enter agreements to facilitate its projects. With the Brotherhood’s board known to have been in place, the organisation is presumed to still exist, though seemingly in a state of perpetual somnolence. It has snoozed its way through failure.

People like Robert Stephens have spent more than a quarter of a century investing in, and promoting, big, multibillion-dollar ideas for Port Royal’s redevelopment but have faced myriad obstacles, whether from heritage overseers fearing encroachment of protected areas, environmentalists concerned about the ecosystem, or governments wanting to maintain control of the asset.

Keep feet on the ground

There are many people, too, who believe that the private initiatives for Port Royal have been overambitious, as much as they feel, with sound logic, that the current Port Authority plan is not the right fix. There are questions about the efficacy of a pier in Port Royal to accommodate vessels capable of hosting 2,000 passengers when across the harbour, in downtown Kingston, where cruise ships once docked, there is infrastructure to handle such vessels.

It is a short hop, by road or ferry, from downtown Kingston to Port Royal. Indeed, much of the money earmarked for the floating pier and associated facilities could be used for improving other areas of a town whose years of mismanagement and inattention wear it badly.

Some of the cash could also be allocated to fixing infrastructure in downtown Kingston.

The upshot is that Port Royal would have the economic benefits of the project without the full impact of the environmental and other stresses. In the meantime, the model employed for the build-out of Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua should be studied.