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Brief History 

Tourism Development in Jamaica- A Synopsis


Jamaica seems to have always attracted its share of visitors, and despite the existence of lodging houses and a few inns such as Ferry Inn, up to 1888 the demand for visitor accommodation was certainly greater than the supply. As Sir Henry Blake, the then Governor of Jamaica said:

“The only accommodation for travelers was the hospitality freely offered by the country gentleman to those who were fortunate enough to obtain introductions.”

Sir Henry’s determination to change this situation was to have consequences that neither he nor anyone else at the time could have foreseen.

The 100 room Constant Spring Hotel was built in 1888, but the real spur to development was the Jamaica International Exhibition planned for 1891. In order to house the visitors who were expected to come to the Exhibition, the Jamaica Hotels Law was passed in 1890 to encourage hotel construction. For this reason the year 1890 is taken as the starting point for discussion of the history of Jamaica’s tourist industry as it signaled the beginning of government’s commitment to the development of the island’s tourism.  The Government offered to guarantee the capital at 3% interest, for all approved hotel construction and maintenance of approved hotels and also that all building materials and furniture required for such hotels be admitted into the island duty free .  As a result several hotels were built not only for the Exhibition, but for those who, having been introduced to Jamaica, would come again and bring others.

Prior to 1890, the industry was not as organized.  Available infrastructure was inadequate and much needed services unavailable.  There were however, a number of lodging houses and inns which numbered in excess of 1400 in 1830. After 1890, hotels were opened in Kingston, Spanish Town, Moneague, Mandeville and Port Antonio of which the most famous were Titchfield in Port Antonio and Myrtle Bank in Kingston. The Titchfield Hotel was re-built in 1905 and the magnificent new structure, which opened that year, helped to make Port Antonio the cradle of Jamaican Tourism.

Early Hotels

Hotels constructed for the Exhibition and within the period included:

  1. The Myrtle Bank built by the Kingston Hotels Company
  2. The Queens built by the Jamaica Hotels Company
  3. The Hotel Rio Cobre, built by the St. Catherine Hotels Company
  4. The Moneague Hotel built by the Moneague Hotels Company
  5. The Titchfield Hotel built by Captain Lorenzo Baker
  6. The Mandeville Hotel built on the site of the Officers Quarters and Mess of the British Regiment which was converted into the Waverly Hotel then the Brooks Hotel and finally became the Mandeville Hotel in 1912

Help was sought from the United States in managing and developing the local tourism workforce and especially methods to improve the attitude displayed towards the industry. Concerned that Jamaica was depending too much on the United States, London implemented the Imperial Direct Line. This was done in an effort to develop a market for the banana trade, independent of the United States.  Elder Dempster and Company led by Sir Alfred Jones operated this venture.

Elder Dempster and Company leased the Myrtle Bank and Constant Spring Hotels from the government and immediately began equipping and advertising them. As a result, there was an increase in the number of visitors to the island.  This led to the enactment of another Jamaica Hotels Law in 1904 which stipulated that any person erecting a hotel of 40 or more bedrooms could apply to have material brought into the island duty free.  The act also exempted persons from increased taxation for 10 years from the date of the import license.

Attempts to organize a bureau responsible for marketing Jamaica resulted in the formation of the Jamaica Tourist Association in 1910 whose primary purpose was “to enhance the claims of the colony as a health and pleasure resort at home and abroad and to give “reliable” information to both prospective visitors and those already holidaying in the island” (Taylor 1993:124). Soon after the world experienced it’s First World War 1914 to 1918 that affected tourist travel. After World War 1 international travel again began to increase and countries across the world began positioning themselves to benefit from the industry. Significant investments were made and such countries as Canada and the United States spent in excess of $20 million to promote travel and tourism to their borders

The next important milestone came in 1922 when the Government established the Tourist Trade Development Board, this forerunner of the present Jamaica Tourist Board was amalgamated with the Tourist Trade Development Board in 1926. A small annual grant was spent in disseminating information about the Island’s facilities and making arrangements with hotel and shipping companies. Perhaps encouraged by this development, Montego Bay took its first steps in the field which today is the town’s main focus. The Ethel hart, the Staffordshire and the Casa Blanca hotels were opened in the next few years, and the fame of Doctor’s Cave Beach began to spread.

Problems surfaced with the financing of the new promotional entity.  Many people felt that the promotion of the industry was a private concern and ought to be treated as such.  To settle the arguments in 1935 the government enacted “a law to impose duty on passengers transported to Jamaica by a ship or aircraft.” (Taylor 1993:142).  The purpose of this was to obtain funds for the advertising of the Jamaican tourism product abroad and for the general promotion of tourist trade. 

Increase funding for tourism programmes and political developments in the Caribbean and the world led to the growth of Jamaica’s tourism in the 1930’s. The 1933 overthrow of Machado in Cuba and the growth of fascism in Italy were two such events which encouraged to the deflection of tourist traffic to Jamaica.  The inauguration of the Pan Am service in 1930 saw Jamaica emerging as a leading destination for visitors.  This service continued up to the outbreak of the Second World War. This period ushered in a complete ban on pleasure travel which almost eliminated the Jamaican tourist industry except for the small movement of intra-Caribbean holiday traffic.

The growth of tourism is of course limited by the number of people who have the time and money to travel and also by the availability of transport. In these early days most international travel was by steamship, but the dawn of air travel in the 1930’s changed all that. It is said that by 1938, Pan American’s four-engine Sikorsky flying boats were bringing as many s twenty tourists a day to Kingston. Ocho Rios also gained its devotees mainly due to the old Shaw Park, but this area did not really take off until after World War Two (1939 –1945) starting with the opening of Tower Isle in 1948.

During the inter-war period, tourism to Jamaica was increasingly viewed as a tool of economic development and one way of diversifying a predominantly agricultural economy.  It was felt that Jamaica possessed an abundance of tourist assets that could aid in developing the island’s proximity to the wealthy American market.  The natural friendliness of the Jamaican people was also an advantage which assured the island of an increasing flow of visitors. The end of World War II truly ushered in the air age and the real beginnings of mass international travel. The stage was set for modern tourism depending as it does on cheap, fast and easy transportation.

Prior to World War Two, visitors to the island arrived mainly by sea, however, in the years after the war the mode of transportation was by air.  Mid 1950s saw Jamaica being serviced by eight international airlines – BOAC, BWIA (British West Indian Airlines), PAA, KLM, Trans Canada Airways, Delta, Avianca and Avenca. The post war period has witnessed unprecedented growth in international tourist’s arrivals worldwide leading to the growth of lucrative tourist industries in many destinations, Jamaica among them.

By 1954 the Government recognized the need for a more effective organization than the  Tourist Trade Development Board. Out of this re-organization emerged a much altered and invigorated Jamaica Tourist Board established April 1, 1955, membership of which reflected all interests in the industry. The new Board operated under the Ministry of Trade and Industry and was financed by annual grants, and given special borrowing powers as well. Full-time staff was increased, sales offices were opened in New York, Miami, Chicago, and London and the promotion of Jamaica was stepped up.

During this time Jamaica gained some reputation as an exclusive resort attracting mainly a wealthy and famous clientele. Between 1961 and 1963 however, the industry declined and the Government of newly independent Jamaica realized the necessity to revive and expand what had become an important sector of the economy. A full-time Director of Tourism was appointed in 1963 and given a budget of J$1,000,000. The Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), responsible for tackling the common problems of hotels and to represent the interests of hoteliers to the tourist board and to the Jamaican government was also established in 1961. This was the beginning of Jamaica’s intensive and sophisticated promotional efforts.

1963 saw the passage of the Jamaica Hotels Aids Law which was an amended version of the law passed in 1904.  This amended version provided the importation on a duty free basis, of “building materials, furniture and equipment for new hotels or for the reconstruction or enlargement of existing plants, provided that the building contained not less than ten bedrooms when completed” (Taylor 1993:146). Smaller properties were also afforded representation through vehicles such as the Jamaica Association of Villas and Apartments (JAVA) established in 1967.

The number of visitors began to climb again – from 202,000 in 1963 to 300,000 in 1965 and nearly 400,000 in 1968. And once again there was a shortage of accommodation. Further incentive legislation enacted in 1968, offered a 10 year tax holiday for all approved projects and 15 years for convention hotels (350 rooms and over). To fill these rooms, 22 airlines brought visitors to our two international airports – including the national carrier, Air Jamaica, inaugurated in 1968.

The 1970s ushered in a decade of problems for Jamaica.  There was increased competition from Europe due to the dramatic reduction in transatlantic fares; rising fuel prices which affected airline costs thereby increasing airfares to Jamaica; political and social unrest in the island; the seemingly anti-American stance of the government at the tine; an increase in negative press coverage overseas, and increased competition from neighboring countries such as the Bahamas and Barbados. This resulted in a fluctuation in the number of visitor arrivals to Jamaica. 

After the 1980 general election and the installation of the new government, there was an upsurge in visitor arrivals to Jamaica. This was due mainly to a reduction in political violence, the pro US policy of the new administration, renewed confidence in Jamaica’s future and massive advertising by the Jamaica Tourist Board. 

Visitor arrivals continued to grow up to 1988 when the country was hit by Hurricane Gilbert. The disaster affected arrivals but not for long, as within two years the country regained its lost ground and kept on growing. Arrivals continued to increase and by the end of the decade the country had received in excess of one million tourists, more than double the number received in 1980.

The growth pattern continued in the 1990’s despite the decade starting with adversities such as  the impact of Hurricane Gilbert, the war in the Persian gulf, the US and Canadian economic recessions. By 1997 the US economy was considered to be buoyant, experiencing low inflation and facilitating higher disposable income. These trends indicated good market prospects for Jamaica and the Caribbean. Jamaica ended the decade receiving over 2 million visitors.

This last decade has also started with significant challenges for the industry. Events such as the bombing of the World Trade Center, The War in Iraq and the United States elections all impacted on the local trade. Other events such as the country receiving its one millionth cruise visitor in one year helped to soften the blows.

Increasingly, the government is dependent on tourism to provide the much needed foreign exchange. Tourism is the number one earner of foreign exchange for the island and showcasing our bringing many visitors to our shores and exposing bringing earning an estimated US$1,925,423,000 in 2009 from a total 2.75million visitor to our shores,  this despite the local and international challenges. At the end of 2009, 2070 places of accommodation were available to our visitors providing over 30,000 rooms.

List of Works Consulted

  1. Henry, Ben (1985).  Public Lecture on the Importance of Tourism to Jamaica. (unpublished paper)
  2. Jamaica Tourist Board (1983). The Tourist Industry: A primer (unpublished paper)
  3. Jamaica Tourist Board (1980-2003) Annual Travel Statistics. Jamaica, Jamaica Tourist Board.
  4. Jamaica Tourist Board (1980-2002) Jamaica Tourist Board Annual Report. Jamaica, Jamaica Tourist Board
  5. Taylor, Frank Fonda (1993).  To Hell with Paradise: a history of the Jamaican Tourist Industry.  London, University of Pittsburgh Press
  6. Martin Emile L. (1994) Reflections on Jamaica’s Tourism. Jamaica, Unlimited Exposures Limited.