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The Tourist Divide in Jamaica

Drinking cold beer on white beaches, the holiday makers never get to see the other side of the fence.

Towering over me, and blocking any potential escape, Steve spits incredulously:

“So, you don’t want anything? Dope? Cocaine? A nice Jamaican woman?”

I figure Steve is offering me these things because, as he’s explained, we’re friend and family.

Eventually, convinced of my purity, he says goodbye with a hand shake. Later he recognises me on the street and waves with a smile. Welcome to Jamaica, at times welcoming and homely, but simultaneously intimidating and frustrating.

Jamaica has experienced a volatile history ever since Columbus first landed in 1494. Along with the subsequent Spanish and British colonial powers arrived pirates, slavery, war, rebellions and eventually revolution. Finally after years of servitude and brutality Jamaica’s people were free.

But today, physical servitude has been replaced by financial chains as Jamaica’s residents are poor, dirt poor. And as I was to learn, Jamaica’s divides, established over the centuries, are still perpetuated today thanks to tourism.

Sun-seekers swarm to the North coast to experience an island paradise seen in films and brochures. A paradise that, for a price, can be experienced from within walled all-inclusive resorts promising private beaches, party bars and ice-cold Red Stripe.

Yet outside the walls is a land of lush rolling landscapes decorated in the vibrant reds, yellows and greens of the Rastafarian flag. A culturally complex island populated by distinct and fascinating people armed with a razor sharp wit, (and often a machete). But of the millions of visitors to Jamaica each year most, if not all, will never experience this.

In many respects Jamaica is not too different from other well trodden traveling paths. With its constant supply of tourists the locals have adapted to the market forces of supply and demand, everyone is a taxi driver first, a friend second, a drug dealer third. Locals compete with one another for the life-saving tourist dollar, baying for blood outside the resort walls.

But in Jamaica this is made more difficult by the walled resort creating an us-and-them tourist presence. Locals and travelers don’t mix like they do in South America and Asia. And with less direct contact with tourists there is an air of desperation, and even resentment, not experienced elsewhere.

This current industry only benefits a minority; the resorts, which are primarily owned by foreign businesses; and the government, who aren’t interested in helping the country’s poor. And why should they? As long as the tourists remain safe behind the walls and the dirt and reality of the island remains hidden, the money will continue to arrive.

All this is perfectly and miserably laid bare at Bob’s Marley’s childhood home at Nine Mile, a rural village high in the Jamaican hills. As a garish tourist attraction it is now housed within its own perimeter wall, hiding Bob’s pilgrims from the real Jamaica, the one that shaped his life and inspired his lyrics.

All they’ll experience of this is the young hands under the gates desperately pleading for cash. To think this building housed the man who once said,

“Me only have one ambition, y’know. I only have one thing I really like to see happen. I like to see mankind live together, that’s all.”

Nine Mile was like a slap in the face, waking me up to the sad and unmistakable truth that Jamaica now, just as in the past, epitomises segregation. An island of grand landscapes and lush beaches criss-crossed by walls and fences, violence and recreation separated by simple lock and key, extremes of poverty and luxury so obviously apparent yet openly tolerated.

My confrontation with Steve no longer seemed so jarring. This is, after all, is an island of plenty; it’s just a shame it seems to be available to so few who actually live on it. Guys like Steve just want their piece from the zombie hordes and who blames them.

When I think back to Jamaica I think of divides; cultural, racial and financial, all of which are continued today by the tourism industry, driving locals to extreme lengths just to get their fair share, while simultaneously shielding travelers from a unique culture.

I also strangely always think of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with its mantra, Tear down the wall! Tear down the Wall!

Sadly though, in Jamaica, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Colin Scott