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Tourist dollars scarce at Negril craft market

Vendors say they are not benefiting from tourist influx

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

Sunday, April 03, 2011    

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VENDORS in the Negril craft market say they are not reaping the benefits of Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett's recently announced boom in visitor arrivals — a reported 47,000 up to March 20 — landmark numbers for Jamaica.

"We not saying that the tourists not coming, we do get tourists but they not buying anything," craft vendor Elka Brown told the Sunday Observer last week.

"This year is the worst year for us. Minister of tourism say we have a lot of tourists and yes, the hotels are filled, but they ain't buying. Tourist are here in Jamaica galore, but they not spending! And that is what we want, for them to spend," said Brown, who has been selling in the craft market for some 15 years.

She added that despite having to pay licensing fees, rent and electricity bills for her shop, she was hard-pressed to sell enough goods to cover the costs and sometimes days go by without a single sale.

Clarence, another craft vendor, shared similar views.

"Nothing not going on now. Tourist just run in and out. Sometimes, for weeks no tourist not buying anything," he said.

"Sometimes all 10 come in and just walk out back. Tourist have too much place to go -- all Trelawny the big ship dem coming in and we want some of them around here." Clarence said. He has been carving decorative items for over 30 years, a trade he learned from his grandfather, and this is the worst he has seen things get financially.

The vendors blame their infrequent sales on the fact that crafts are now sold in abundance in the hotels' gift shops, where more lucky craft vendors are allowed to operate. They also say a big chunk of their previous profits has been eaten up by the many foreign immigrant shopkeepers who sell similar craft items in shops set up in the town.

"By the time they (tourists) get to us they done buy already," said Merna Barrett, who has been selling in the Negril craft market for 20 years. "Right now I have to be thinking about an alternative because they just not spending."

As the Sunday Observer team spoke with her, two tourists entered her shop and began browsing through her foods, instantly drawing Barrett's attention.

"You see anything you like?" she asked her potential buyers politely.

"Oh, we like everything!" gushed one of them, flashing a bright smile even as they headed for the exit.

Barrett turned back to us, "You see what I mean. They come and look but they just not buying."

"Everybody have everything in the hotels selling," another vendor who gave her name as GG, added. "They probably not selling them cheaper, but you find that they not promoting the craft market either cause they want their things to sell."

GG said at one time, the craft market would have been on the list of must-see places that tourists were encouraged to visit, but not anymore.

"The hotels need to send out their guests," she declared.

"We have lots of tourists, but you have people selling crafts on the beach and those with the in-bond shops," GG added. "They (in-bond shops) sell gold too so they will sell an item (of craft) for (US)$1 and you selling the same item for (US)$5, because they make up their profit off the gold."

She explained that the same persons who sell craft items to vendors at the market also sell the same things to the hotels.

"I think if everybody allow the tourists to come here from the hotels, we would be better off," GG said. She said while there is a craft vendors' association charged with acting in the best interests of the vendors, this body was far from vibrant. She feels that they should go beyond their current duty to ensure that discipline is upheld in the craft market, they should also take on the responsibility of promoting it.

"They cannot do anything about the in-bond shops," she said. "But they need to find a way to allow the hotels to send out their guests like they used to do." During the Sunday Observer's visit, a few tourists strolled through the market moving from shop to shop but hardly purchased anything. One vendor, a Rastafarian, pointed to another problem.

"A lot of us don't carve (craft items) and the carvers them just build the same thing. No matter how you complain to them, is the same thing they carve and sell to everybody," he said. "The tourist dem complain bout dat too cause they don't have a variety to choose from. So that's why you have some vendors making money and some don't."

And, in the over 200 shops in the market, a consistency in design and variety of art and craft items was indeed obvious. Handcrafted items, accessories, handbags and locally designed clothing were very similar, stall to stall.

"That is one of the things that we need to boycott," the vendor added. "We need to come together and complain."

Another male vendor who was sitting in his shop enjoying his lunch and clearly absorbed in the live coverage of the Manatt/Dudus enquiry blaring from a television perched on top of a refrigerator, said he was thinking of going into another business.

"Things very quiet," he said between bites. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm in the right business because you have to depend on when tourist come to make a money and they not really spending right now," he said.

"The all-inclusive (hotels) is hampering us. They spend in the hotel, so why would they go out and spend? Right now I think I might run lef it (the business). You find that the craft market might eventually close because another man might think the same and run lef it to. I don't see where it working out right now."

He too feels the market needs to be properly promoted.

Alison Lyle, a tourist from Alabama in the USA, who was wandering through the shops with her partner, said she was searching for the best deal. And, while it was her first time to the craft market, felt that it was a place she would return to.

"They do sell crafts in the hotel but they are more commercial. Things here are much better," she said. "We already bought some stuff elsewhere but we are looking to see if we see other things here that we like," she said.

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