Paradise in despair; Hope for Montego Bay amidst the challenges
Montego Bay, the tourism capital of Jamaica, is a city that embodies the dualities of paradise and despair.
Nestled along the picturesque shores of Jamaica, the turbulent and oppressive past of this thriving tourist hub has left an indelible mark on its present. Today its citizens need a glimmer of hope to steer them towards a brighter future. The dream of owning their own homes in peaceful communities, with decent schools, hospitals and recreational activity remains elusive for many, perpetuating a cycle of economic hardship and marginalisation.
Montego Bay is a complex tapestry, woven with threads of oppression and resilience. Centuries of colonial rule and exploitation marked by the transatlantic slave trade has left deep wounds that have not yet been healed or reconciled. A thick fog of division between the wealthy upper class and the poor yet trying lower class has existed since slavery. Forced labour, subjugation, and the plundering of natural resources fueled wealth for the colonizers while contrastingly created poverty for local communities in the shadows.
They literally had to fight for their freedom in 1831 led by ‘Daddy’ Sam Sharpe. Montegonians were very instrumentally in Jamaica’s decision to abolish slavery three years later by 1834 with a grace period up to 1838.
Traditionally, Montego Bay and St James created wealth for the planter class through agriculture. King sugar was the main commodity produced at the time from the main agricultural crop sugar cane. Rum, molasses and bagasse board were other byproducts. These plantation owners benefited from the economies of scale associated with large scale production and free labour.
As the world’s economy evolved and Jamaica lost preferential treatment and faced stiff competition from Central and South American countries, Jamaican sugar became less popular as the means of creating wealth for the plantocracy – tourism emerging as its successor. Jamaica produced more than five million tons of sugar cane towards the end of the 1960s, total annual production has fallen to less than 800,000 tons today, an 80 per cent decline in modern times.
Tourism, on the other hand, is now the number one foreign exchange earner. Tourism emergence in the mid-20th century continued the economic inequality on the island. Locals are mainly relegated to low-paying jobs unable to access the economic benefits reaped by foreign investors and hotel chains. The city took a shot at the Free Zone area as recommended by the renowned economist and Nobel Laurette, Sir Authur Lewis. The results were not as expansive, businesses found it difficult executing the plan as laid out due local challenges and global shocks. The legacy of historical oppression compounded by contemporary economic disparities continue to cast a long shadow over the city.
These former slaves were not empowered with any resource as free men, and generations of children of slaves have found it difficult integrating into the modern commercial fabric of the city.
Those with ambition are left to fend for themselves and have had to find clever ways to create wealth outside of the formal economy. The informality and illegality of ensuing economy activities has evolved over time and has become the norm where even many decent upstanding citizens are of the view that they cannot become wealthy without participating in corruption, crime, and violence. This should not be so. There should be legitimate ways where people can explore to create wealth irrespective of their race, colour or creed. However, illicit activities such as scamming and drug trade have taken root in the vacuum of economic opportunities. The allure of quick riches in the face of limited prospects has led some to engage in these dangerous pursuits, further exacerbating the city’s crime and violence issues. Montego Bay’s citizens have found themselves in a city where fear often overshadows daily life – a sad state for such a beautiful city with so much potential and such remarkable, resilient, and resourceful people.
Today, Montego Bay grapples with multifaceted trials that have escalated over the past few decades. Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) has emerged alongside tourism. It’s a step in the right direction but miles away from the true solution. Wages and opportunities in the BPO sector are a little better than in tourism. Also, business ownership in the sector has evolved to include sons and daughters of slaves, which is very fulfilling. However, the city’s heavy dependence on these two industries has not provided the solid foundation required to accelerate modern macroeconomic development.
Despite the challenges, a glimmer of hope remains for the citizens of the city. Given its long distance from its maximum economic capacity, Montego Bay has the potential to be a modern-day Miami or Rio de Janeiro. All the city need is the right leadership. Several initiatives and factors provide a glow of optimism for its future:
Diversification of the Economy: If and when we become leaders Montego Bay will be forced to explore more value-added services and goods. This will diversify the local economy beyond tourism and BPOs and create initiatives to attract new industries, technology to support entrepreneurship. Investment in education and vocational training are steps toward providing better job prospects and wage growth.
Community Empowerment: The community is the heart of the labour force. Grassroot efforts to enhance communities and create recreational spaces are underway. Community centres, sports facilities, and cultural events will foster a sense of unity and belonging.
Tourism Reimagined: There is potential to reimagine tourism in Montego Bay, emphasising sustainable and responsible travel that benefits local communities. Eco-tourism and cultural tourism initiatives can provide alternative income streams.
Crime Reduction Strategies: The city is working on innovative crime reduction strategies, including community policing, rehabilitation programmes, and youth engagement initiatives to address the root causes of crime.
These plus many more solutions will be rolled out as time progresses. Montego Bay’s residents have endured much, and their resilience and determination has suggested that they deserve better. Let us work towards a future that offers economic opportunities, community empowerment, and a safer environment. There is hope that the shadows cast over the city will gradually recede. The Montego Bay of tomorrow could be a place where prosperity, security, and a vibrant community spirit thrive, reflecting the resilience of its people.
Dr Andre Haughton is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also the People’s National Party Shadow Cabinet Minister on Commerce, Innovation and Technology. He is the Author of Developing Sustainable Balance of Payments in Small Countries and Overcoming Productivity Challenges in Small Countries. You can contact him via social media at @drandrehaughton on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In.