The island’s tourism authorities say they are dealing with the emergence of illegal rafters on the White River, on the border of St Ann and St Mary, which has infuriated the operators of White River Calypso Rafting and Tubing.
The company, which has been in business for more than a decade, said it is being badly undercut by “scammers, pimps, and touts” who are unlicensed and have no business interacting with tourists.
“What is being allowed to happen on the White River is a total disgrace and could lead to the demise of tourism as we know it,” said an irate Robert “Bobby” Marsh, owner of White River Calypso Rafting and Tubing.
“I hope we can all recall when we allowed illegal jet ski operators to run roughshod over the tourism industry and which eventually led to tourist fatalities. Well…guess what, the same thing is happening here on the White River where there are illegal rafters, who cannot even swim, taking tourists down the river.
“There have been near misses but, heaven forbid, if somebody dies or something bad happens. How will we respond as a nation?” Marsh asked.
Asked for a response to Marsh’s concerns, the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo) on Monday said it was aware of the illegal rafters and several meetings have been held with them to have them desist.
“TPDCo has been in touch with the Jamaica Constabulary Force regarding enforcement of the River Rafting Act and JTB Act and routine monitoring of the river is done with the marine police. Note TPDCo is not an enforcement agency, however steps are being taken by our Visitor Safety & Experience Unit to improve the situation as follows:
“Designated personnel have been recently given responsibility to oversee this area of operations; roper signage and notification of the illegality of the activity will be posted in designated areas; letters are to be issued to ground transportation operators regarding sanctions if caught taking guests to participate in these illegal activities; all licensed rafts are to be clearly marked to differentiate between legal and illegal raftsmen; and a watersports policy is being finalised by the Ministry [of Tourism] for submission to Cabinet in the near future,” TPDCo said in an e-mail response.
Marsh, a former Jamaica Labour Party Member of Parliament for St Ann North Eastern, had told the Jamaica Observer that he was particularly upset that nothing had been done despite the matter being reported to all the relevant bodies, including the Ministry of Tourism, the St Ann and St Mary municipal corporations, the River Rafting Authority, and the police.
“Can you imagine one councillor looking me in my face and telling me that I am only one vote, clearly implying that his electoral fortunes are more important than doing what’s right. I am convinced that these people who are supposed to protect the vital tourism sector are either incompetent or could [not] care less,” said Marsh.
“I have personally written to Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett, the Tourism Product Development Company, and all other relevant bodies…and I have not had the courtesy of a response. Is it that they are waiting for an accident to happen à la the jet ski operations of yesteryear? These operators are unregulated and have zero by way of public liability insurance…yet they are taking hotel and cruise passengers down the White River…undercutting me who has been playing by the rules,” added Marsh.
According to Marsh, he is certain that the cruise lines and hotel owners are being kept in the dark as, “there is no way they would wittingly allow their guests to be subjected to such clear and present danger”.
Marsh argued that it’s mind-boggling that an important industry like tourism is allowed to be hijacked by illegal operators with the authorities turning a blind eye to the possible harmful impact on one of the country’s main engines of economic growth.
“Tourism has been through a lot over the past two years and is only just now making a comeback,” noted Marsh.
“I have been in the business for nearly 40 years, and I have never seen such lawlessness and in-your-face brazenness. These pirates have been ripping off the unsuspecting guests. Where are the enforcers and the people who are supposed to be protecting the sector?”
Marsh said it is his hope that the people in authority will start doing their jobs.
“It’s either we are going to have rules for everybody or open the floodgates so we all can do what we want. We can’t have it both ways…one rule for some and another rule for others,” declared Marsh.