Violence Puts a Chill on Jamaica's Vital Tourism Industry

Empty beach at Secrets Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Empty beach at Secrets Montego Bay, Jamaica.

In Jamaica, where tourism is a $4 billion industry that accounts for around 20% of GDP, more than a week of negative headlines poses a serious risk to the island's economy. The Caribbean nation's second-largest industry has taken a hit since a four-day gun battle in Kingston's Tivoli Gardens erupted last week, leaving dozens of people dead. The military is still looking for gang kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who was based in Tivoli Gardens, for extradition to the U.S. on drug- and weapons-trafficking charges.

The violence has put the brakes on a record level of travel to Jamaica in the first three months of this year. More than 500,000 foreigners visited Jamaica in the quarter, a 9.2% increase over the same period a year ago. But the U.S. State Department has issued an advisory urging Americans to defer nonessential travel to Kingston, and airlines began rescheduling flights to avoid landing after dark. So, the city's famous music clubs and businesses have been shuttering early, and the reservation lines have been quiet at Jamaica's resorts and hotels.

"I Don't Feel Safe, It's As Simple As That"

At the Red Bones Blues Café, a Kingston dinner club, several acts canceled and there are fewer diners. "It's slowed down. We are not seeing the amount of guests who usually come," said Sheryl White, a cashier.

The swanky poolside bar at the Spanish Court hotel in New Kingston, an up-and-coming business district, was nearly empty. Meghan Fabulous, a fashion designer from Los Angeles, and her company president, Sacha Hason, who had come to Kingston to do a trunk show at a boutique clothing store, were among the few present. Their trip had been planned for months, timed to coincide with the Kingston premier of Sex and the City 2.

Despite the State Department advisory, they decided to come anyway and hired security to follow them from the airport and to trail them on a sightseeing tour of Kingston. "It's clear that it's going to hurt tourism in Jamaica, but overall, it's not as bad as it seems on the news," Fabulous said.

Down the bar, a trade officer for the Jamaican government disagreed. He was ready to return to his home country of Singapore. "I don't feel safe, it's as simple as that," he said.

Near the scene of the shootout on the city's West Side is the Trench Town Culture Yard, a museum located in the home where Bob Marley learned to play the guitar. When a small group approached, a surprised tour guide with a baby on her hip rushed to the entrance, saying that because of the recent disturbances in the area, she hadn't expected anyone.

Skittishness Affecting Business Far From Kingston

The impact of the violence has spread outside Kingston to Jamaica's famed North Coast resort region. Jamaican Minister of Information Daryl Haz tried to assure visitors that the resort areas were unaffected by the unrest in Kingston. "This is a situation that is taking place in certain parts of Kingston in downtown. It is approximately anywhere from 100 to 140 miles from our resort areas," Haz said.

At Dolphin Cove, visitors pay up to $600 to swim with dolphins, sting rays and nurse sharks. The interactive aquarium is a main attraction in Ocho Rios, among Jamaica's biggest cruise ship ports of call. So far there have been five cancellations, says executive assistant Roger Kerr. "It has affected bookings," Kerr said. "Some of our Jamaican visitors canceled because they were fearful of driving through Spanish Town," Kerr said, referring to a suburb of Kingston that has become part of the police operation.

Further up the coast on the new Highway 2000, the private, white-sand beach at Secrets, a 700-room all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay, was nearly empty. The resort, which opened in late March, said about 120 guests canceled over Memorial Day weekend. "We were finally seeing some positive growth in Jamaica. We over here are hoping like hell this thing in Kingston doesn't stop it," Delwin Rochester, Secrets' resident manager, said. Rochester hopes to boost traffic in June with two nights for the price of one deals and coupons for the property's spa and restaurants.

"Jamaicans Are the Best Salespeople"

Meanwhile, the couples-only resort chain Sandals is dispatching personnel abroad to spread the word that Jamaica is safe, Sandals Chairman Gordon "Butch" Stewart told The Jamaica Observer newspaper. "It is now a matter of doing everything to push Jamaica," he said.

The Ministry of Tourism says it will spend $10 million on a massive advertising campaign to get the message out that Jamaica's mountains and beaches are safe and open for business. John Lynch, the chairman of the Jamaica Tourist Board, believes simply getting people to Jamaica will help counteract the image of the shootouts in Kingston. "We've gone through hurricanes, and this is as bad as a hurricane. But Jamaicans are the best salespeople. And you know the old saying, seeing is believing," Lynch said.

For more information, visit the Jamaica Tourist Board at