Tourism in Jamaica: still an uneasy paradise

On the north coast of jamaica between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay lies Discovery Bay where Columbus first landed on the island in 1494. The small outdoor park that commemorates this event abuts the Kaiser bauxite loading pier, an incongruous juxtaposition that underscores the uneasy coexistence between Jamaica's past and present.

Jamaica is a poignant example of a natural paradise struggling to survive in a modern world. The verdant fauna and the aquamarine sea are little different from the moment when Columbus first beheld them almost five centuries ago. It is not nature that is the problem in Jamaica, but civilization, brought to the island first by the Spanish, then the British.

The history of Jamaica is one of slavery and subjection. Yet the independence finally achieved in 1962 has created more problems than solutions, and the economy today is on the verge of collapse. Strikes, unemployment, inflation, and poverty are among the ills that threated to drive off the tourists just as they have the island's more prosperous and educated residents who are emigrating in droves. For example, any tourist thinking of renting a car in Jamaica would do well to keep in mind that the price of gasoline last spring was $4.65 a gallon.

As the gas price suggests, oil is at the root of Jamaica's economic woes. Exports such as bauxite and coffee are not nearly sufficient to offset the island's imports, which range from the critical, namely oil, to nonessentials such as codfish which became a staple of the Jamaican diet when the island was under British rule. Perhaps the bitterest irony of all is that the government's crackdown on the lucrative illegal trafficking in marijuana hurt the economy so severely that the desperate government is now considering its legalization.

Whether the storm clouds that hover over Harry Belafonte's fabled "island in the sun"thicken or disperse depends a great deal on the upcoming election which will probably take place this spring or summer. This will determine in which direction the government, led by Socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley for the past 12 years, will swing -- closer to communism or back to capitalism.

What this means for the tourist is that he should read the newspaper before planning a trip to Jamaica, especially during the off season, the "Caribbean Bonanza" discount notwithstanding. There are a few good omens for tourism, however. Most important is its revival since 1977 when reports of political violence and racial hostilities virtually quashed the trade. The beleaguered country now depends so heavily on tourism for revenue that it would practically be an act of national suicide to allow an inimical political situation to occur.

As a young tennis instructor at one of the hotels put it, "Politics is not a plaything any more. It's life and death." He, like so many other inhabitants of the island, relies on the tourists for his livelihood. Ironically, the arts and crafts have received an unexpected boost from the deteriorating economic situation as the unemployed turn to avocations such as wood carving and basket weaving to sell as souvenirs to the tourists, who exercise over the island a kind of neo-colonial power of the purse.

The traveler to Jamaica today not only gets away from it all but from the island as well. The apparent mission of the hotels is to insulate the tourist from the political and economic realities as thoroughly as possible and create the illusion of an island within an island. In Ocho Rios, for example, which is Jamaica's most established resort town, the hotels range from the ultramodern, pseudo-American such as the Mallards Beach Hyatt ($28.50-$31.50 per person, double, summer rates), to those of traditional gentility, such as the Plantation Inn ($45 per person, double, summer rates, MAP).

The Plantation Inn, as it name implies, is an anachronism that epitomizes the best Jamaica has to offer. Built in 1956, it seems older and more European -- impressions created by the subdued elegance of its atmosphere. Among the clientele the week I was there were model Cheryl Tiegs and Pierre Trudeau, and the number of Europeans, especially Germans, seemed equal to the number of Americans. The guests clearly prefer a quiet, candle-lit dinner under the stars after a torpid day at the beach, a mere flight of stairs away, to the rollicking reggae-ridden atmosphere of neighboring hotels such as Couples. The grounds of the inn are immaculately maintained, the staff courteous and well trained, and the amenities charming, particularly the breakfast served daily on one's private balcony overlooking the sea.

Meanwhile, overhead, the vultures circle and outside the coconuts rot from a mysterious disease which is gradually killing the entire species on the island. They, like the island's hardships which they seem to symbolize, are almost impossible for even the most oblivious tourist to ignore. He will find it totally impossible to ignore the insistent and at times resentful demand for tips from the polygenetic, who while they are not exactly hostile to the white tourist are not exactly friendly either.

Amid the changes that have brought chaos to the island, the constants of sun/sand/sea remain the abiding attractions. The Ocho Rios area, which lured Ian Fleming and Noel Coward to establish residences, is particularly bountiful in botanical beauty as well. Next door to the Plantation Inn, for example, are the gardens and bird sanctuary that belong to the Shaw Park Beach Hotel where the flowers that grow in riotous profusion range from the familiar poinsettia to the exotic leathery-petaled, pineapple-scented Golden Chalice.

A little farther away is Fern Gully, site of an old river bed which is now a tangle of ferns, lianas, and rain forest hardwoods. A drive through this cool, dense arbor is almost as refreshing as a dip in the Caribbean. Also recommended for nature lovers is a horseback ride through the Prospect Plantation which gives the visitor a better opportunity to study the many varieties of trees -- with such names as Bitter Damsel and Fiddle Wood -- than the organized "banana walk."

Also enduring on Jamaica are the sounds which are as evocative to the imagination as the scenery and the scents. The melodic patois -- the indigenous polygot speech which inspired the lilting calypso and the rhythmic reggae -- is as innocent of the world changing as the frogs crooning their evening song and the waves beating time on the shore.

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