|By Melanie Eversley, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 22, 2003 - NEGRIL, Jamaica -- In the United States, Jamaica is promoted as a sunny playground of sandy beaches and azure water, featuring all-inclusive resorts that cater to people looking for a tropical escape.
But critics say the resorts such as Sandals and Hedonism II that dot the island are neglecting Jamaican culture and perpetuating a kind of racial separatism that keeps mostly white tourists and Jamaica's mostly black residents from mingling.
"Jamaican tourism is quite, quite different from everything else," said Tricia Barnett, head of Tourism Concern, an advocacy group based in Britain that pushes for tourism that benefits surrounding residents.
"There is a hostility to tourism and tourists because they perpetuate the relationship of servants and master in Jamaica," Barnett said. "When the all-inclusives came in, it then denied people local access to the economic benefits of tourism, and again segregated and separated the tourists away from the local people, the way the whole plantation economy did."
Fifty-five percent of Jamaica's 14,388 hotel rooms are all-inclusive, according to a 2002 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. There are no figures available specifically on how many people work at Jamaica's all-inclusive resorts, but almost 33,000 work in the island's hospitality industry, according to the Planning Institute of Jamaica.
Resort owners say they are providing jobs in the financially ailing country, which is 90 percent black. One-third of Jamaica's 2.7 million people live below the poverty line.
John Issa, a wealthy Jamaican businessman, started the all-inclusives phenomenon in 1976, when he opened Negril Beach Village, since renamed Hedonism II. Issa heads a company called Superclubs, which has seven resorts in Jamaica.
He sees his industry as providing badly needed jobs on an island where the official unemployment rate is 15.4 percent.
"The benefits in the major all-inclusive hotels, both the salary and gratuity which is included in the package, are better than the majority of the industry," Issa said.
Clayson Payton of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, which represents hospitality workers, said the pay --- ranging from $60 to $90 per week --- is about average for Jamaica and that the jobs at the all-inclusive resorts are sought after.
In 1983, the island had two all-inclusive resorts, according to the Jamaica Tourist Board. By 1998, there were 45. Most of them are in the 80-mile northern coastal tourism strip connecting Negril, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
Something else has evolved in these last two decades, too: the Jamaican economy's increased dependence on tourism.
Since the 1970s, Jamaica has taken out a series of international development loans to stay afloat. Today, the country is $53 billion in debt.
At the same time, global trade liberalization has spread, increasing competitive pressure on traditional Jamaican products. The markets for rum, bananas and a range of fruits and vegetables have declined in recent years.
The effect has been a greater reliance on vacationers. About half of Jamaica's foreign exchange now comes from tourism, according to the Jamaica Tourist Board. In 2000, 2.2 million visitors spent $332.6 million on the island.
Issa, whose Arab family came to Jamaica in 1893 from Bethlehem, said the all-inclusive idea came to him when the world was reeling from the 1970s oil crisis. He decided to create a resort for budget-conscious travelers, allowing them to pay one price for everything.
"Back in those days, everyone didn't have a credit card," Issa said from his office in Kingston, the capital. "There were times when people would go to check out and they'd find these extra charges on their bill and didn't have enough money to get to the airport."
Issa is the second-largest owner of the island's all-inclusive resorts, behind Gordon "Butch" Stewart, a white Jamaican businessman who owns Sandals Resorts International, Air Jamaica and one of the island's largest newspapers. Stewart, who opened his first hotel in 1981, did not respond to requests for an interview.
The popularity of the all-inclusive resorts has stoked resentment among some locals as other means of income have disappeared. The complaints of some Jamaicans include the emotional issue of racial separatism.
Typically, as at other all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, visitors are insulated from the rest of the country. Vans ferry vacationers directly from the airport to a well-guarded resort. At check-in, the concierge explains that visitors need not leave the grounds for meals, drinks, entertainment or shopping.
Guests enjoy piped-in reggae music and a beach view. Jamaicans who aren't employees are not allowed inside. At some resorts, guards at the front gate demand that guests sign out before they are allowed to venture beyond the property.
"Jamaica is being marketed for all-inclusive vacations as if the Jamaicans are bad people," said Gail Jackson, a Pittsburgh native who owns and runs Negril Treehouse Resort with her Jamaican-born husband.
"I've never had my car stolen here, like I had in the States," Jackson continued. "I've never had my house broken into here. You're safe when you exercise common sense."
To be sure, crime has been an issue in Jamaica, particularly gang violence in the capital city of Kingston, according to the U.S. State Department.
In 2000, Jamaica's murder rate was 34 for every 100,000 people --- one of the highest in the world --- according to Interpol.
Crime aside, many activists on the island are promoting community tourism, in which local Jamaicans play an integral part in development. Some innkeepers offer tourists an alternative.
"I want people like the Jamaica Tourist Board to come out and say Jamaica is diverse, we have excellent bed-and-breakfasts, we have excellent boutique properties and we also have excellent all-inclusives," said Jason Henzell, a property owner on Jamaica's south coast. Henzell and his mother, Sally, own Jake's, a 10-year-old hotel and restaurant in Treasure Beach, that is known for offering a more genuine Jamaican experience.
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(c) 2003, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.