Tourism in Jamaica hit a low ebb in the '70s, when reports of an unstable economy, violence, and resentment of Americans sent sunbathers elsewhere. A violent election year in 1980 didn't help, but since then, business has been picking up. Last year the island had 670,000 visitors, an all-time high, and this year they expect more.
Dr. Marco Brown, minister of tourism, says the change in administration from left-leaning Michael Manley to conservative Edward Seaga has ''brought back a lot of what you found: warmth, friendship. . . .'' It's hard to legislate warmth and friendship, which some visitors say were there all along. But the Seaga administration can claim credit for instilling enlightened self-interest in Jamaicans working in the tourist industry.
Everyone from customs officials to straw market vendors is being trained, Dr. Brown says. They're not just learning how to be more charming and efficient, they're learning why. ''We're telling them the importance of tourism to Jamaica as a means of earning the foreign exchange which we need to keep our country alive. We have to explain the financial aspect of it first of all.'' After that , he says, vendors are told ''you don't have to badger them that they must buy, . . . no is no, finished, (don't)???come back again, thank you.''
This advice hasn't sunk in everywhere. A visitor to the 1982 Jamaica World Music Festival told of Jamaicans waiting outside her hotel, pushing marijuana on guests. Craft vendors thronged the beach. Hair-braiders on the beach were so persistent, she said, that by the end of one day several women had their hair done up in the tiny, beaded braids popularized by the movie ''10'' whether they wanted to or not - just to avoid being approached again.
The ministry wants to develop tourism without impinging on Jamaican culture. ''We've done studies on how to integrate it, so that the visitor feels very happy with the Jamaican culture and the Jamaican people feel happy with the visitor,'' says a spokesman. The communication goes both ways. Twenty Baptist choirs from the states have been booked to sing around the island this year, for example.
The Jamaica Tourist Board runs a ''Meet the People'' program, which consists of about 1,000 Jamaican families ready to entertain Americans at home by inviting Jamaicans for them to meet. They try to find people in the same profession or with the same interests. The program will also find Jamaican golf or tennis partners for Americans. The program has helped Jamaicans realize, Dr. Brown says, ''that everybody who comes off that airplane is not rich. They're shop assistants, taxi operators, just like themselves.''