BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment email@example.com
SELF-styled tour guides who hustle outside the State-owned Bath Fountain Hotel & Spa in Eastern St Thomas want their services formally recognised. Though their operations are parallel to the hotel's, the more than 40 guides — who take visitors to bathe at the mineral spring which feeds the spa, and offer them massages — argue that they should be allowed to operate alongside the formal business since it is one of the few earning sources left in this former banana parish.
They told the Jamaica Observer North East that they attempted to set up stalls to sell craft items and towels, among other things a few years ago, but were stopped by the hotel management.
"Both of us can co-exist because there are some people who will never go up the hill to the spring and some persons who would never go in the spa," reasoned Orville Frater.
"We have a lot of high school youths who can't get no work in St Thomas and so they end up come here come wash car, cook some crayfish soup or sell craft for a living," said a man who identified himself only as 'Uncle' and who has been a guide for more than 13 years.
In addition to the tours and massages, the unoffical guides sell mineral clay which they claim is good for detoxifying the body, and a locally produced pimento oil which they say is good for treating sinusitis, swelling and pain. Both potions, they said, are also indicated in the treatment of eczema.
"Wi sell a bottle fi $500 and you have people who take all 15 bottles abroad one time, so there is a very active market for it," one guide said of the pimento oil, which they began making about 10 years ago after a woman from Africa gave them the recipe.
The men also make money from carrying the feeble on their backs on the five-minute trek to the stream.
"If you cannot walk and you even weigh 500 pounds, we volunteer to carry you up there," said 'Uncle', adding that the Bath — rumoured to be the world's most powerful and therapeutic — is like a hospital with many ailing people visiting.
The men, who have often been accused of harassing visitors to the facility, insist that they do nothing to negatively impact their line of work as they constantly seek to protect the life and property of visitors.
"People come here all nine o'clock ah night and leave dem vehicle and nobody never miss a dime and you never hear nobody get rape or anything like that because this is a place weh nuff yout get fi eat a food, so we take care of it," he said.
Many of the guides say they have regular clients who often call ahead to book massages at the spring. Ras Steve, who has been offering the service there for more than 25 years, said he gets clients from all over the world, having received a boost to his business from a programme that ran on the Discovery Channel.
He said that although many of the young men do not have formal training in massage techniques, visitors have described the service as being among the best.
He lamented, however, that "because in St Thomas we don't even have a factory", hustling at Bath was his only means of sending his five children through high school and university, and building a house for his family.
Another very vocal guide added that despite the many natural resources in St Thomas, not get even five per cent of the tourists who visit the island yearly grace the eastern parish.
According to him, the majority of the clients to Bath Fountain are locals, as situation which could have been different had plans to build a 500-room hotel at Rocky Point materialised.
"Dem even say dem would build more rooms at this hotel to attract tourists and dem never did, so is full time dem stop fool up St Thomas people," he fumed.
Two years ago, Government backed down on its promise to pump $100 million into the improvement of Bath Fountain Hotel & Spa, leaving some of those connected to the entity disappointed. The Administration at the time, pledged to upgrade the facility through the Tourism Enhancement Fund, but later decided against it.
However, the residents contend that upgrading the facilities will pull more tourists. They argue as well, that once visitors bathe, there are no other attractions to entice them to stay and spend.
"We would love to see where kids can come and enjoy themselves and a place where people can stay a while after they bathe," said one man.