Jamaica basks in tourist surge, new economic climate

By , Latin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The sun in suddenly shining brighter on Jamaica these days. "There has been an overnight change in confidence in the future," says new Prime Minister Edward Seaga. "There has been a relaxation of tension. "There has been a relaxation of tension. The lights are on again. People are smiling again."

He and other Jamaica observers are citing three reasons for their new enthusiasm: a sudden and promising resurgence of the tourist industry, negotiations with international agencies for financial assistance, and a sharply lessened climate of violence on the Caribbean island.

All this implies there will be less social experimentation and political change under Mr. Seaga than was the case during the government of Michael Manley. Mr. Seaga and his Jamaica Labour Party ousted the Manley government in parliamentary elections last Oct. 30.

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At the same time, enthusiasm on the part of the Seaga government cannot be separated from the chages taking place throughout the Caribbean. Immediately before and immediately after the Seaga victory, more conservative governments won elections on six other islands.

Although there is some reluctance on Mr. Seaga's part to be too upbeat about the developments out of concern that there are still serious problems ahead for the beleaguered island nation, there can be no mistaking his enthusiasm and the positive signs.

After nearly a decade of relatively poor winter tourist seasons, prospect for the three-month season beginning Dec. 1 suggest it will be the best in history. Airline flights to the island are heavily booked, most hotels are already full, and other services are expected to be heavily taxed to keep up with the expected tourist surge.

If there are no changes in this good tourist report, Jamaica will likely earn close to $100 million in foreign exchange during the three months -- a substantial boost to the island's battered economy.

As good as this report is, it would not, by itself, kindle great enthusiasm among Jamaicans. But when it is added to other factors, islanders do get excited about their economic future. The other factors:

Urgent negotiations between Prime Minister Seaga's government and the International Monetary Fund are nearing completion. Mr. Seaga is in Washington talking with IMF officials, as well as officials of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other agencies.

Jamaica has been struggling with an international debt of more than $1 billion and, under Mr. Seaga, is seeking to offset the immediate lack of foreign exchange through IMF credit. A good tourist season will help significantly but is far from enough.

Jamaica needs at least $250 million annually is foreign credits over the next three years -- the target period during which Mr. Seaga hopes to implement his recovery program for the island.

IMF sources in Washington indicate that the international agency will not only extend significant but as yet unspecified financial help to the Seaga government, it will also take the lead in arranging a larger package of external assistance from governments the world over and from private sources.

IMF officials feel such aid is the immediate key to Jamaica's recovery. Indeed, there is a sense of urgency in Washington on the recovery. One international banking official commented: "It is now or never. This could well be Jamaica's last chance without going a totalitarian route."

To Mr. Seaga, however, the IMF aid is only the first step in regearing the island's economy. The assistance of foreign governments and foreign businesses is absolutely essential, he argues, if Jamaica is to recover from its economic dilemmas. "The IMF is important, nay imperative," he says, "but it is at best only the beginning. We have to win the confidence and then the support of the foreign business community if the economy is to be reshaped."

By all reckoning Jamaica's economy has gone downhill steadily during the past decade. It was largely on this issue that Mr. Seaga so handily defeated former Prime Minister Manley in the late October balloting.

Another key issue was the violence that stalked the island. At least 745 persons were killed in the first 10 months of the year, according to National Security Minister Winston Spaulding. He told Parliament Nov. 25 that 143 were killed in October alone during the election campaign.

But so far in November, the number of such crimes has declined sharply. In a Miami speech Nov. 24 Mr. Seaga said that it was down 50 percent and his goal was to have it virtually eliminated by early in 1981.

Violence, moreover, has been a key factor in the decline in tourism over the past decade. Even though virtually all the violence was concentrated in Kingston, the capital, and particularly in the slums of West Kingston, far from the tourist areas of the north coast, visitors stayed away from the island because of the stories of violence that continued to crop up in the United States and Canadian press.

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