Having rid itself of the image of a pro-Cuban, anti-American, violence-ridden country, Jamaica still faces high unemployment, social discontent, inflation and devaluation of the Jamaican dollar. Despite encouraging news on other fronts, there has been no dramatic change in the country's economic situation.
Few Americans realize the disastrous state of the Jamaican economy on election day, Oct. 30, 1980. After eight consecutive years of economic slippage and negative growth, this was the situation:
Both inflation and unemployment were running at about 35 percent (up to 80 percent unemployment in the ghettos) on top of a 50 percent devaluation of the Jamaican dollar within the last year. Those who could afford it, mostly professional and business people, had fled the country and taken millions with them; the Bank of Jamaica was bare.
There was no foreign exchange and businesses could not get parts for machinery. Foreign investment had disappeared years before, not only in the tourist industry but in all phases of the economy and, as a result, there was no new building of any kind and no new jobs created.
Then, last summer, when it seemed things couldn't possibly get worse, they did. Fields of sugar cane, inundated by floods, produced the leanest crop in 10 years; banana plants were shredded and their great stalks of fruit blown away by Hurricane Allen. About the same time, and with tourism already declining, television audiences began seeing gun battles and destruction of buildings in the slums of Kingston. What little was left of tourisam plummeted.
As the new prime minister put it, "Jamaica has been ravenged and destroyed, like a country that has gone through a war."
Loans were made available soon after the election, but many economic problems remain, all of which are contributing to the high cost of eating out and getting around the island.
Hotel rooms still are reasonably priced, particularly so when bought in conjunction with attractive packages sold through retail travel agents.
Jamaican taxes, which can add up to a considerable sum, are not included in the price of a package, but hotel and departure taxes usually are billed as a separate item on the package tour invoice and can cost from $19 to $30 per person for a seven-night package and $32 to $54 a person for the two-week package.
Taxation of tourists in Jamaica is a model of what not to do if a country wants to attract tourists. There is a $4- to $6-a-night room tax to start with, plus an additional (believe it or not) $2-per-person-per-night room occupancy tax (up to $6 a person for some higher-priced accommodations). Then there are a $5 airport departure tax and, in lieu of tipping, a 10 percent service charge at all government-owned hotels (up to 15 percent at some other resorts).
Because of inflation and devaluation of the Jamaican dollar, restaurant prices have doubled within the last year. Despite the fact that $1 U.S. equals $1.75 Jamaican, dinner for two in a first-class restaurant easily will cost $50 to $75 U.S., plus about $8 for a carafe of wine.
An average dinner without drinks or wine in a hotel dining room or terrace (not the resort's high-priced gourmet restaurant) will cost a minimum of $16 to $18 a person -- and there are no mcDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets to which the budget-minded can flee.
Couples who must watch expenses are able to afford perhaps one, at most two, of the several special events arranged weekly by each resort.
To help reduce the cost of meals, most hotels offer an optional meal plan -- Modified American Plan (MAP), which means breakfast and dinner daily, but not lunch -- at prices that ranged this spring from $18 to $20 a day at the more modest hotels, to $22 (children $18) at the Inter-Continental Ocho Rios, $25 at the Jamaica Hilton and Rose Hall Inter-Continental, and $26 at the Holiday Inn and the Shaw Park Beach Hotel.
Thus, for a seven-night vacation, $126 to $182 a person would be added for breakfast and dinner to the package price.
The daily cost of each hotel's MAP was printed in last year's brochures, but those for the summer season give no prices, merely a notation that an optional meal plan may be purchased at the resort. That in itself suggests higher prices are coming.
For lunch, tourists at the Intercontinental Ocho Rios paid these prices this spring at the snack bar near the pool: hot dog, $2 U.S.; hamburger, $2.50; cheesburger, $2.75; chef's salad, $3.50; and fruit platter, $3.50. Soft drinks were 75 and 85 cents.
At the terrace bar of the Mallards Beach-Hyatt, Jamaican beer sold for $1.30; Dutch beer, $1.75 (no American beer available); Scotch and water, $3.25; bourbon and water, $3.25; Canadian Club, $4.95; a martini, $2.75; a bloody Mary, $2.40; a rum collins, $1.85; cognac, $5.50 -- all in U.S. dollars.
The cost of excursions adds up, too. Tourists based at Ocho Rios must pay these prices: rafting on the Rio Grande, $27 a person; tour of a plantation, $17 a person; the Governor's Coach Tour (a trip on a diesel train into the mountains to visit village markets, a cave and a rum distillery, plus a picnic lunch), $35 a person; a trip to Montego Bay for shopping, $10 a person.
On the Montego Bay trip, the bus stopped in front of Rose Hall Great House, the restored 18-century English Country house where the "white witch" the legendary and notorious Annie Palmer, lived. According to legend, she murdered four husbands and a number of lovers while residing there.
"The admission fee is $8 U.S.," announced the driver-guide. "Those who want to visit it, raise your hand." None did, and the tour bus moved on. Several couples commented later they would have been happy to pay as much as $4 or $5 each, but not $8 -- certainly not $16 a couple -- to see Rose Hall. Thus, high tour prices are bringing additional loss of revenue.
Taxi fares are intolerable: $15 U.S. for a five-mile ride between the Jamaica Hilton and Mallards Beach-Hyatt; $12.50 from Ocho Rios to nearby Dunn's River Falls; $70 U.S. from Ocho Rios to Montego Bay (67 miles).
To sum up the impressions from a recent visit:
Jamaicans beaches and sea and mountains are as romantic and alluring as ever; the sounds of the surf and of calypso, limbo and reggae are as exciting; the weather is still delightful; the island's naturally shy people are making a great effort at being friendly; there is little or no crime or violence in tourist areas; and, for the most part, the few tourists now coming there are happy with what they find. But Jamaica still has a long way to go to again become a prime tourist attraction.
In this veteran traveler's opinion, an alarm should be sounded: Prics of hotel rooms and air fare-hotel packages are most attractive, but other prices are far too high -- often they double the price of the original package -- to lure the volume of tourists Jamaica must have to ensure the future of tourism and, thus, the island nation's economic future.
Holding the line on the cost of hotel rooms isn't enough. By permitting constant increases in the already-too-high cost of food, drink, sightseeing and transportation, Jamaica just may be pricing itself out of a renaissance in tourism.