Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Tourism was one of the brightest spots of the economy in the 1980s as, depending on bauxite output in a given year, it became the first or second leading foreign exchange earner. Net earnings from tourism nearly doubled in the first six years of the decade, reaching US$437 million in 1986. Tourist arrivals increased 53 percent over the five-year period from 1981 to 1985. Hotel occupancy rates rose from 41.5 percent in 1981 to the 70-percent range in 1986 and early 1987.

Jamaica's appeal to tourists came from its scenic beauty, warm climate, and white sand beaches, as well as the warmth of its people. The island's proximity to the large North American tourist market was another advantage. An expensive government advertisement campaign, beckoning American tourists to "come back to Jamaica," as well as more cruise ship stopovers spurred tourist development in the early 1980s. Jamaica ranked second only to the Bahamas as the preferred vacation location for American tourists in the Caribbean. Direct employment in tourist hotels increased from 9,527 in 1980 to 13,619 in 1985. Although this employment represented only a small percentage of the total work force, the industry indirectly created numerous service jobs in restaurants, transport, entertainment, and crafts.

Tourism began in Jamaica in the 1890s, when the United Fruit Company, seeking to use the excess capacity of its ships, encouraged cruises to Jamaica, and tourist hotels were constructed on the island. Tourism, however, did not flourish until after World War II, when accelerated depreciation allowances for investment in that sector helped to triple the number of hotels from 1945 to 1970. Further hotel incentive legislation in 1968 continued to transform the industry, eventually strengthening the role of larger hotels. After a twenty-year period of growth, tourism slumped in the mid-1970s for a variety of reasons, ranging from radical domestic policies to negative press coverage abroad. In the 1980s, the tourist market was recaptured, and it expanded more quickly than the rest of the economy. American tourists were believed to be traveling more often to the Caribbean as a result of growing terrorism in Europe. In addition, Jamaica became particularly attractive as numerous devaluations of the Jamaican dollar made United States dollars more valuable. The number of European tourists was also expected to increase in the 1980s, following the decline in value of the United States dollar, to which the Jamaican currency was pegged.

Jamaica recorded 846,716 visitor arrivals in 1985. Stop-over visitors numbered 571,713 and cruise ship passengers totalled 261,508. Some 13,495 servicemen also visited the island, many of whom were United States soldiers from the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ninety percent of all tourists in Jamaica originated in North America, with about 75 percent coming from the United States. Europeans and Latin Americans made up the remaining 10 percent. Canadians and Europeans tended to stay longer than Americans, whose average stay was roughly one week. Although Jamaican citizens received discounted hotel rates, costs remained too high for most Jamaicans.

Jamaican tourism was quite diversified, ranging from camping in the Blue Mountains, to small beach houses in Negril, to large tourist hotels in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. The country's room capacity exceeded 11,000 rooms, served by over 700 hotels and various other guest houses. Most large hotels were foreign owned, whereas the majority of smaller hotels were locally owned. In the 1980s, the government divested numerous hotels that were purchased by the government in the 1970s.

Since 1956 the tourist industry has been regulated by the Jamaican Tourist Board (JTB) which greeted tourists, provided courtesy police, trained workers, set standards, and promoted Jamaican tourism both at home and abroad. One of the largest problems that the JTB faced in the 1980s was the continued harassment of tourists. Most harassment stemmed from frequent peddling of goods to tourists, at times incessantly; this peddling most likely reflected the high unemployment rates. Tourists were also approached to purchase drugs, primarily marijuana, colloquially called "ganja."

Another issue for the JTB and tourist industry in the 1980s was whether to allow casino gambling, which would probably attract tourists. Largely as a result of strong church lobbying, casino gambling legislation had never been enacted, and it remained doubtful that it ever would be.

Although most Jamaicans were favorable toward tourism, certain sectors of society frowned on it for its perceived negative moral influences. Others doubted its contributions to the economy, given both the large percentage of imported goods used in the industry and the prominent role of foreigners.

More about the Economy of Jamaica.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress