Written by Leanna Westerhof. Media by John Freeman.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica is a port town. During the touristic season, cruise ships dock there nearly every day; sometimes as many as three. I went to this town over spring break with a friend who had recently graduated. She is half-Jamaican and wanted to visit her homeland for the first time. Driving through the town to reach our apartment we rented, I was reminded of Haiti. The small run-down houses were built in the style of the Caribbean, used to keep the houses cool and allow breezes to pass throughout. Instead of security systems, there were walls, gates, and wire posts sticking up out of the roofs to prevent thieves.
There was greenery all around: lush tropical trees and flowers surrounding a clear, bright blue ocean that took my breath away. A not so beautiful site was trash lining the roads and jungle paths. Walking around town, I watched as the natives threw their trash on the street when they were finished with their bottles and wrappers. A river was swimming with trash and it broke my heart.
Jamaica is considered a middle income country and is by no means similar to Haiti in its poverty level. However, there are extremely high rates of unemployment and poverty. The unemployment rate is 13.7 percent as of April 16 with poverty being 16 percent.
Walking the streets of Ochi, as it is called, the natural beauty pervades the entire country. You get the sense that you are from a much different world. As we stepped off opulent and luxurious cruises into another world, I found myself wondering, are we helping or hindering them? Are we exploiting the countries that we use for such lavish vacations? What do they think about us? Do they despise us?
Many Jamaicans in the town of Ocho Rios depend on tourism. Tourism is their livelihood; all the way from taxi drivers, hotel maids and security guards, snorkeling guides, to dolphin trainers. Without us, they wouldn’t have a livelihood. Yet, I struggled with guilt the entire trip for all that I had, and all they didn’t have.
Tourism although nervously watching world events is the mainstay industry of Jamaica employing one of ten Jamaicans. Global tourism, however, exacts a price on Jamaica, environmentally and socially. Large all-inclusive tourist facilities at Montego Bay provide the tourist with hotel, food, and entertainment. These tourists seldom come in contact with Jamaican life, being cloistered in compounds, eating food imported from abroad. Jamaicans typically work as maids and kitchen help, even as prostitutes in the tourist industry. Sewage from these facilities often empties into the ocean which along with siltation, pesticides, over-fishing, and physical destruction including anchors from cruise ships destroy coral reefs and marine life. Only a small percentage of Jamaica’s original coral reefs remain.”
I don’t have answers to the questions I’m asking. What I do know is that I want to take nice vacations, explore the world, and experience different cultures. Is there anything wrong with that? I don’t think so. However, there is a price; and sometimes, I wonder if the price is too high.