For our first-ever trip to the Caribbean, my friend Michael, his then-girlfriend, my then-girlfriend, and I rented a cottage on the north coast of Jamaica, about a stone's throw from Ocho Rios and the parish of St. Mary. This was in 1979, and travel to Jamaica was different then. Couples Resorts existed, but there were no Sandals or Beaches resorts -- in fact, few large hotels or all-inclusives of any stripe. Nor would we anti-establishment types have even wanted one.
What we wanted was to tool around in our rental car, visiting Dunn's River Falls (where I almost sent a good Nikon SLR to a precipitous demise), the cool Blue Mountains, James Bond Beach (where Sean Connery met up with Ursula Andress), and local markets. We got into conversations with locals; ate free-range chicken and eggs, a rarity back then in the Big Apple.
On our second night a not-so-young street dog climbed up onto the plain concrete slab that was our veranda and gave birth to puppies right then and there. Wisely or not, we fell in love with this homeless family and kept Mom well fed that week so she could do likewise for her babies.
The Ganja Sale That Wasn't
Our third evening was eventful, too, because a local stopped by our cottage and tried very hard to talk us into buying some ganja. Can't blame him. Michael, even more than me, really looked like a prospective customer: long hair, untrimmed beard, the whole nine yards. Except -- except -- Michael was a dedicated counselor in a program for high school kids with drug problems. So we told the visitor that we didn't want to buy marijuana. His response tells you a lot about how different tourism was back then compared with the current scene: He said, "You don't want any ganja?!" Long pause while he looked totally confused. Then he asked, "If you don't want to smoke ganja, why did you come to Jamaica?"
Our cottage was one of six or eight modest, inexpensive rentals on a plot of land with no real beach; think efficiency cabins in the Ozarks. A Jamaican named Roy Chin owned the cabins, and we became rather friendly with our landlord over the course of the week. In fact, when we were ready to return to the U.S., he asked us if we'd mind delivering a gift package to his wife, who was working in Brooklyn. We were happy to do so.
A Potential Win-Win for Jamaica and for You
Fast forward to a late summer morning in 2019, when a press release arrives by email with a photo of Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, whom I know, and a man of a certain age who looks vaguely familiar. I look closer: It's Roy Chin (the man on the right in this photo). As a local businessman, he and Minister Bartlett (left) had been visiting St. Mary's Parish and discussing the possibliity of developing more tourism businesses -- that is, sustainable, small-scale, locally owned enterprises, not to be confused with Montego Bay's large Spanish- and American-owned all-inclusive resorts.
Bartlett's goal is to give locals more of a stake in the economy and to give visitors more authentic experiences. That's a win-win, and it's been one of the minister's favorite projects.
"As part of our commitment to reimagine destination Jamaica, we are committed to building out new experiences east of Oracabessa towards Port Antonio. The purpose of [my visit] has been to take a hard look at Robin’s Bay, Golden Eye, beaches and rivers, and all the public assets in St. Mary, to determine the potential of the area to become a lifestyle tourism destination," says Minister Bartlett.
Beaches, Waterfalls, and Rivers = Experiences
“What we envisage for this side of the island is of course low density and low carbon foot prints to ensure minimal impact on the environment. We also want to look at the higher demographic in terms of the ability to attract higher average daily rates within this area. We think that Port Antonio would be the big center for lifestyle tourism with strong eco-tourism values, which can go all the way to Oracabessa.
"The area has huge geophysical assets in terms of its beaches, waterfalls and rivers that can definitely be converted into tremendous experiences for tourism," he adds, "and the time is now for us to capitalize on this potential."
Thjs part of the north coast is also home to the Jamaican bobsled run (yes, visitors can try it), a dramatic zipline facility, historic homes, river rafting, the centuries-old town and architecture of Falmouth, Blue Mountain coffee tours, stables, and other facilities not available when we paid our first visit to Ochi (Ocho Rios) and environs.
It was good to see Roy again, if only in a photo. Now I want to see the ganja peddler again, too, because I doubt that he would still ask me, "If you don't want to smoke ganja, why did you come to Jamaica?"
And now, for a postscript, the curve ball: Jamaican tourism authorities are, in fact, currently evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of fostering a marijuana tourism industry. But that, dear reader, is a discussion for another time.
For more information about experiences in Jamaica, see VisitJamaica.com .