When Jamaican tour operator Carlo Less started his firm, Vibzen, in 2013, hoping to bring tourists to the heart of the island, the odds were stacked against him. After all, there are two Jamaicas. One is the safe Jamaica of the resorts, where Bob Marley is almost always playing, the jerk chicken is mild and the staff constantly smile and say “Irie!” — which roughly translates to “everything’s all good.” This Jamaica draws the vast majority of the country’s more than 4 million annual visitors and billions of tourism dollars. The other Jamaica, epitomized by capital Kingston, is a cocktail of throbbing music, spicy food, tropical colors, dusty sunshine, a disorder simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, and violence that has long kept tourists away. Now, though, efforts are being made to bridge that divide.
Kingston and, more broadly, Jamaica are slowly drawing an increasing number of tourists beyond the walled resorts dotting the island’s north that foreign visitors have traditionally preferred. The Jamaica Tourist Board recorded more than 750,000 “stopover” visits to Kingston in 2017. While that number is only a fourth of the 3.1 million-plus stopover visits recorded at popular Montego Bay, it marks a decisive shift. Tourist arrivals in Kingston are up 11 percent over the past five years.
It’s for people who are seeking a true cultural experience.
Carlo Less, Jamaican tour operator
Transport connectivity improvements have helped, says Nicola Madden-Greig, former president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association. A new, Chinese-built superhighway opened in March 2016, making access to Kingston from Montego Bay easier. Also, the capital’s port is undergoing expansion — next winter, it will be able to accommodate the supersize cruise ships that dominate the north coast. And dogged local entrepreneurs are offering tourists experiences they can’t hope to have at the resorts.
Some are partnering with resort companies to bring tourists who want a bit of both Jamaicas to Kingston. Kingston-based JaMIN Tours signed a deal in June with Sandals, a Jamaican-owned company with resorts on the north coast and across the Caribbean, to bus tourists to Kingston for a day tour through Trench Town — the birthplace of reggae. About 200 tourists have already taken the five-hour round-trip bus ride, says JaMIN Tours founder Henley Morgan. Today, Less caters to more than 450 tourists a year, compared with 65 five years ago.
“It’s for people who are seeking a true cultural experience,” says Less.
Jamaica’s reputation as one of the world’s most violent nations remains a challenge. The country of 2.8 million people — a third the size of New York City’s population — witnessed just over 1,600 murders in 2017. Earlier this year, the Canadian, British and U.S. governments issued a security warning to their nationals visiting Jamaica. Kingston’s broken infrastructure — potholed roads, unreliable utilities and garbage-strewn streets — only add to a sense of insecurity for tourists.
“You have to reimagine the city from dangerous to benign and safe,” says Hume Johnson, associate professor of public relations at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. To do that, she adds, “you need to fix the infrastructure first. [Kingston] is blighted by urban decay.”
Still, tourists who want a taste of the real Jamaica have easier access and more professional agencies willing to guide them than they did before. Less’ company, for instance, facilitates interaction with locals. “At the big resorts, the tourists don’t have any real interactions with them,” he says.
Thomas Shassir, who visited Trench Town from Israel with JaMIN Tours, was attracted to the people and culture he saw. “It is an amazing place,” he says. Spaniard Luca Saporito wanted to avoid tourist traps and instead experience Rastafarian culture and music. He found a willing partner in Less, whose company organized the trip for Saporito and his friends to Kingston. Saporito visited locations where Marley slept, and where renowned reggae artist Horace Andy recorded. “It opened our minds immensely and showed us the way to a much deeper side of the country,” says Saporito.
He isn’t alone. The world too, it seems, is taking note. In 2015, Kingston was named a UNESCO “Creative City of Music” — it is, of course, home to Trench Town’s Culture Yard, where Marley, Jamaica’s most famous son, conceived much of his music. Jamaica’s government plans to include Kingston under a new tourism strategy — the capital was ignored in the current plan.
The onset of options beyond the extremes of shoestring-income backpacking on the one hand, and fully planned guided tours on the other, may also be helping Kingston, suggests Morgan. That was the case for a trio of young Irish men who, on a hot June day, were visiting the Bob Marley Museum. They were staying at an Airbnb — and were happy about it. “The resorts are a bit fake,” said Tommy Brady, one of the three.
Kingston, argue the city’s proponents, has much more to offer than the resorts. “Jamaica is beautiful, but clearly there is more to the country than white, sandy beaches,” says Karen Hutchinson, of Jamaica Cultural Enterprises, an 8-year-old firm that conducts walking tours of Kingston.
Take, for example the famed late-night parties that play dancehall — a high-energy style of Jamaican music — into the wee morning hours. Syl Gordon started the Dancehall Hostel, which caters to people seeking the dancehall experience, five years ago. “We offer the experience to those who want to learn the dance, to experience the [city’s] nightlife,” says Gordon. The hostel’s clientèle has grown from an average of 50 visitors a month in its first year to 400 now. And — like Kingston’s tourist footprint — that number likely to rise.
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