Red dirt and white sand Bauxite and tourism make good friends

Red dirt and white sand Bauxite and tourism make good friends


Sunday, December 15, 2019

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St Ann is blessed with two major industries springing from the natural resources with which the region is abundantly blessed. The tourism and bauxite industries dominate the parish, with tourism more widespread in its outreach and connections to other areas around the island.

Bauxite is an equally powerful economic spinner, with employment more concentrated in special leased mining areas to the south, as well as its administrative offices, port, and drying plant in Discovery Bay on the north.

Tourism in St Ann was a sleeping giant for many years. Columbus's first sighting of the north coast in 1494 moved him to write in his journal: “...The mountains seem to touch the sky across the horizon. All are most beautiful, of a thousand shapes, and all are accessible and filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall.”

The white sand beaches and the mountains of St Ann lay at anchor for over 400 years, until Abe Issa, tourism pioneer, built the Tower Isle Hotel in a virtual wilderness outside the then-undeveloped fishing village, Ocho Rios.

Many thought he had made a gigantic business error, but Tower Isle Hotel became an immediate sensation and destination for the well-heeled and glitterati of those days. Among his famous guests were boxing champion Joe Louis; actresses Debbie Reynolds and Jane Russell; singer Lena Horne; actor Errol Flynn; playwright Sir Noel Coward; and Britain's Princess Margaret.

The success of the hotel stirred other enterprises out of their slumber. Today's Ocho Rios is a far cry from the unremarkable little village of the 1950s.

The bauxite industry landed in St Ann about the same time as when Issa was opening the doors to his new hotel. In 1952 Reynolds Jamaica Mines started shipping bauxite from Ocho Rios. The presence of these two industries moved Ocho Rios into second gear on its way to becoming the 5-star tourism attraction it is now.

But the synergy that developed between these two unlikely cousins — red dirt and white sand — was not always smooth passage for both entities.

For example, when Kaiser Bauxite decided to move its operations from St Elizabeth to the scenic north coast of St Ann in 1963, traditionally reserved for the hoi polloi who could afford the villas and laid-back lifestyle, tourism interests and plantocrats were lining up to do battle to keep out the industry from Discovery Bay.

Business interests and landowners, in much the same way that forces have joined to call for the shutting down of the bauxite industry in Jamaica today, began to wage a campaign urging Discovery Bay villagers to speak out against the industry plans for the area. In fact, a group from the so-called owner class went as far as to encourage their employees to picket the Kaiser operations.

Well, that just didn't work. The local residents, fully aware of the potential wider employment and income opportunities from the coming industry, refused to comply with the orders to demonstrate against the company.

Fighting pressure from the large business interests and so-called environmentalists of the day, a group of young men decided to invite the Chief Minister Norman Manley to intervene in the community dispute. A public meeting was called to welcome Manley, and banners reading “WE WANT BAUXITE” stretched across the road as he drove up in his Studebaker to meet the residents.

A huge crowd crammed into the tiny Discovery Bay market, where the chief minister was given a hero's welcome and hoisted unto a market stall. He went straight to the point; explaining the huge benefits that would accrue to the area from “bauxite in partnership with tourism”. And, as he wound up his address, he asked for a referendum: “Do you want the bauxite industry to come to Discovery Bay or not?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!”

The meeting broke into loud cheers and applause, and the first organised move to bar the bauxite industry from our shores was put to a convincing rest.

That may have been where the synergy between the two industries started. Certainly, the people spoke out, not against tourism, but in favour of a combination of both industries, and with a realisation that the bauxite industry can co-exist with the environment if a practical and objective effort is made to balance the equation between both sides and, importantly, on behalf of Jamaica.

Sixty years later the argument continues, with some environmental lobbyists making a determined push for an immediate and total shutdown of the industry. Now this is an industry that accounts for 62 per cent of all export earnings from Jamaica. How do the lobbyists propose to fill the gap? Silence up to now.

Here are some interesting facts: In 2018, over US$1.2 billion was generated from the exports of bauxite and alumina. Earnings from bauxite exports amounted to US$100 million, while the remainder US$1.1 billion was attributed to alumina exports. Is anyone out there listening? How on Earth is this gap to be filled if there was “an immediate and total shutdown of this industry”?

On a more pleasant note, I leave you with a few references to the close synergy which was formed between bauxite and tourism in Discovery Bay following what can be considered to have been Norman Manley's first referendum in Jamaica.

Most of us are familiar with the legend that Discovery Bay was Christopher Columbus's first port of call. I remind you that he named it Puerto Seco, or Dry Harbour, because he found no fresh water when he entered the harbour. The story goes that he then went on a few miles west searching for water and found what he called a good river, or Rio Bueno as he named it, before returning to make his landfall at Dry Harbour.

Over the succeeding centuries the sleepy little village of Dry Harbour was content for many of those years with mini-shipping activities for agricultural products. At one time it boasted a British military barracks (established in 1777) on the eastern point of the harbour. There were also several large estates in the vicinity, including Hopewell Penn, where we are told “a very tolerable claret was yet made from fine grapes near Dry Harbour”.

In 1956 Kaiser Bauxite purchased Discovery Bay Estates and opened Puerto Seco Beach to the public. During that period of ownership the beach not only earned a reputation as the best public beach in Jamaica, but it was a stellar attraction for Jamaicans and visitors from all over the world.

On the western side of the bay, the company built and maintained Columbus Park — Jamaica's first open air historic museum. The park was built on the site where Columbus is said to have first set foot on Jamaican soil.

It was a popular site that attracted an average 600 visitors per day, and was considered a welcome stop for tourists travelling along the north coast.

The synergy between bauxite and tourism continued to develop when, in the 1970s, Kaiser introduced and managed a tourism programme which marketed Jamaica as a destination among sister companies abroad. It was called Discover the Source, and encouraged employees from Kaiser companies overseas to visit our traditional attractions in Jamaica and to make the bauxite operation in St Ann a part of those attractions.

The synergy doesn't stop there. In 1976 the bauxite operations created the National Push Cart Derby, which in turn gave birth to the Jamaica bobsled entry into the Winter Olympics. The Jamaica bobsled, in turn, gave birth to the Walt Disney record-breaking movie Cool Runnings, which remains a major tourism booster for Jamaica and St Ann.

All these non-bauxite activities remind me of a cartoon cover on a company magazine some years ago which portrayed the company involved in tourism, Columbus Park, cricket, Puerto Seco, push cart derby, with the punch line, “and they still find time to mine bauxite”.

After all these years, tourism and bauxite are still the leading drivers of our economy. And Manley was right about the huge benefits that would accrue to the area from “bauxite in partnership with tourism”.

As Auntie Roachy used to say, “Nuh dash way yuh 'tick before you dun crass river”.

Lance Neita is a writer and public relations consultant. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

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