Island Business

By Steven Chan '00 / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007
Hey, special for you," the man called to me as I strolled through the outdoor market in Brown's Town, Jamaica. The air was hot and hazy; sweat was dripping from my face. "A special Jamaican drink, only found here," the man offered, reaching into a bucket filled with ice. His hand emerged from the pail grasping a plastic bottle of Sprite. I shook my head, marveling at this false advertising, and walked on. The next person I encountered was an old and sun-worn man who stood next to a display of dime-store combs and toothbrushes. "Hey mon, you like it? Only eighty dollars ($3 U.S.)." A woman vendor stepped into my path and tried to persuade me to buy a pair of neatly folded underwear for three hundred Jamaican dollars ($10 U.S.); others eagerly approached, carrying old shoes, pencils, and paper. I quickly walked past them to avoid further harassment.

Jamaica, where I spent a semester studying marine biology at the Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory, has two kinds of independent salespeople. One group works at the all-inclusive beachfront resorts and hotels for which the island is known. These vendors sit calmly behind tables laden with polished wooden carvings, confidently greeting tourists and cruise-ship passengers; their self-assurance reflects their knowledge that they will make enough money each day to support their families. Outside the gated resorts, though, the second group of salespeople ekes out a living in public marketplaces, selling an odd array of such everyday things as sponges, rolls, and plastic shoes. The first group of vendors makes a living because of the all-inclusive nature of the resorts, but the second group survives in spite of it.

Before I visited Jamaica, I had imagined that tourism, the major revenue source for the island, benefited most of its residents. When I first arrived on the island, I saw the billboards on the main roads that boasted how the majority of Jamaicans worked in the island's tourist economy; I heard the radio advertisements instructing locals to treat the tourists kindly. This happy scenario seems to work in the major cities of Montego Bay, Negril, and Ocho Rios, home to a multitude of large resorts. The manicured beaches, air-conditioned shops, and beautiful waterfront hotels - not to mention the lack of small, decrepit houses - represent the abundant amounts of money flowing through these towns. A large chunk of that money ends up in the pockets of the people who work in these large resorts.

But when I took breaks from my classes to explore local markets, churches, and bars, I noticed a different world. In this Jamaica there are no fancy hotels. The houses have one room and are the size of a garage, built of rotted wood with a cloth or sheet-metal roof. The people who live here operate run-down roadside stands rarely visited by tourists; others run musty open-air diners outfitted with plastic tables and lawn furniture instead of the woven-straw seats and glossy wooden tables found in resort restaurants. These vendors told me they earn between twenty and thirty U.S. dollars a month. Bellhops, waiters, and bartenders at the resorts usually make that much in tips every day.

So there's a clear line in the sand: one group is in on the profit, the other group isn't. The all-inclusive nature of the hotels perpetuates this division. I often heard hotel workers exaggerate the dangers of traveling around Jamaica to tourists, warning them not to wander outside the resort. This effectively pools the money inside, leaving little or nothing to trickle out to the little roadside diners. Even bus tours, which visit many locales around the island, only stop at company-associated, higher-scale areas.

After a while, being accosted by vendors desperate to sell their overpriced underwear and toothbrushes stopped bothering me so much. I could not help empathizing with them and their dilemma. They were shut out from the benefits of tourism, yet they were expected to put on happy smiles for the tourists who probably wouldn't give them a dime. Before I went to Jamaica, I'd see advertisements in the newspaper for hotel packages in the Caribbean, or for cruises with stops at all-inclusive resorts, and I'd turn the page without a second thought. Now I know better. ***

Steven Chan is a biology concentrator from Murrysville, Pennsylvania.

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September / October 1999