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Illegal tours

TPDCo says no permits issued to operate Roaring River cave attraction

BY DONNA HUSSEY-WHYTE Sunday Observer staff reporter husseyd@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 16, 2012    

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THE Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo) has denied ever giving permission to anyone to use the Roaring River cave in Westmoreland, or to conduct tours there since it was officially closed on March 31, 2008.

This after a Sunday Observer expose last week revealed that residents from the community where the attraction is located are taking visitors through the unlit cave, charging them JMD$1,500 or US$15.00 per tour.

These tours are being conducted across treacherous terrain inside the cave by untrained guides who use only bottle torches, candles or cigarette lighters to light the way for hapless tourists and locals, as this reporter found on a visit to the rundown attraction three weeks ago.

One visitor said the attraction is a "roaring rip-off", and described his being unable to see through the "murky darkness" and, therefore, not being able to enjoy the sightseeing tour that he had paid for.

"The Tourism Product Development Company has never given permission to anyone to use the cave or to conduct tours," Kingsley Roberts, senior director, corporate communications in the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, told the Sunday Observer in an e-mailed response, Monday.

"There is a need for proper lighting to be installed in the cave to ensure the safety of visitors and locals alike who enter it," Roberts stated, which is in contrast with the tour guide's claim that there was electricity in the cave but the power had gone out the morning of the Sunday Observer's visit.

Roberts reiterated that following a tour by the Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Dr Wykeham McNeill and a team from the ministry and its agencies on July 27, the decision had been made to renovate the attraction to facilitate its reopening.

Roberts explained that this renovation project is to include the installation of lights in the cave, the effecting of repairs to the vendor's booths, main office, entry building and children's play area. The barbeque area, the bar and restaurant are also to be renovated, while the handrails and gate at the mouth of the cave will also be repaired. The project is also to include resolving the termite infestation on various sections of the property, the installation of signs and a guardhouse, as well as landscaping.

"Work on the proposed project is slated to begin in a matter of months," Roberts explained.

Meanwhile, a former board director of TPDCo, Donald Smith, who contacted the Sunday Observer following the story's publication, said that he was the one who pushed to close the attraction after a series of weaknesses in management was found.

He said that as it stands now, the Roaring River cave attraction is nothing more than a tourist disaster waiting to happen.

"It would be a national embarrassment if a tourist should visit and meet in an accident there," he said. "If a tourist should meet in an accident while on tour it would be disastrous for the tourism industry as there is no compensation to be had."

Smith recounted his role in the decision to close the attraction and said it started when he visited the cave with some family members shortly after being appointed to the TPDCo board in 2007.

"It was a Friday, the office was closed, the place was locked up, but business was going on," he told the Sunday Observer.

"So the place was closed but it was in full operation. I asked the security guard how do you go inside? So he said 'well, you pay me'. I asked how much. He said $1,500 for white people and $500 for black people. I told him I didn't have so much, I had $350 for each of us — It was eight of us. So I asked, do I get a ticket? And he said, 'No'."

Smith said his subsequent investigations uncovered many irregularities that sounded alarm bells in his mind. He and his party were not issued tickets, the staff had apparently all left for Sav-la-mar to collect their pay, leaving the security guard to collect and keep all monies paid by visitors until the following Monday.

Additionally, Smith said there were a slew of other concerns that were revealed when, as chairman of the TPDCo board's audit committee, he asked an auditor to review the attraction's operations.

"The same persons who were issuing the order for the goods were the same persons who were responsible for collecting the money, the same persons responsible for paying, and the same persons responsible for signing cheques," he said.

"The same persons who were issuing the order for the goods were the same persons who were responsible for collecting the money, the same persons responsible for paying, and the same persons responsible for signing cheques," he said.

Smith said money was also being earned from parties, baptisms and dances being held on the property.

"So I said, no, this can't work, so I ordered that it be closed, and this created one excitement," he said, noting that the staff had to be laid off, the lights disconnected, and the financial controller told to come up with a better plan to operate the attraction.

"I can't remember just how much, but it was millions of dollars that TPDCo spent out there; millions. Plus, the money that was being paid out with these cheques to these suppliers who nobody knew what they were, then paying the staff on top of that, maintaining the place, paying light bills and all the other bills for up there. So it was closed."

Smith said he was later told that the place was being run as a community operation where everything was now controlled by the community and the money used to send children to school and take care of the elderly. But this, too, raised red flags.

"I heard the tourism minister say the other day that he was going to reopen it, I don't know if it will be on the same basis that it was opened before, because it was definitely a drain on taxpayers. I don't know if it is that they are going to run it on the basis that taxpayers pay for it and the community makes a living out of it," he said.

The safety issue is paramount, Smith said, pointing to an advertisement that was placed in the papers two years ago to warn the public of the closure.

"We had to do it for insurance purposes in case somebody went there and got injured, because that would have been a lawsuit," Smith said.

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