TREASURE BEACH, St Elizabeth — Even as the Government plans to extend the Southern Coastal Highway Project westwards to Hodges in St Elizabeth, following the completion of the US$188-million May Pen to Williamsfield leg of Highway 2000, tourism interests here are "cautiously optimistic" about the development.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness, speaking on Thursday in the 2023-2024 Budget Debate, said that his Administration plans to extend the highway project to Hodges, close to the parish capital of Black River.
"The scope of the project includes the improvement of the existing road infrastructure as well as bypass for Mandeville [and] Spur Tree. A connection close to Junction, Southfield [and] heading into Black River," said Holness.
The May Pen to Williamsfield leg is scheduled for completion in August 2023. The Jamaica Observer was told that the planning phase of the leg from Williamsfield to Hodges could take up to two years.
Treasure Beach, located close to the most southerly tip of St Elizabeth's farm-rich Pedro Plains, as well as Southfield and Junction, has evolved over the years from a sleepy fishing village to the classic exemplar of community tourism in modern Jamaica.
Hoteliers and community activists, Jason Henzell and David "Folby" Folb, have welcomed Holness's plans for the south coast highway, but want community tourism to remain untouched in Treasure Beach.
"I am very protective of Treasure Beach and I don't want Treasure Beach to become a commercial destination. We want it always to remain a model for community tourism and a niche market of agro-tourism. We don't want it to become an Ocho Rios and Negril kind of destination," said Henzell. "I am cautiously optimistic… my fear is coming so close to Treasure Beach with the highway could potentially over commercialise the area".
"[However], it really is a [progress] to know that the road network is going to be improved along the south coast," added Henzell.
Folb, an Englishman who owns and operates the Lashings Boutique Hotel and Villas in Treasure Beach, said the highway would benefit tourism and business on the south coast.
"I have two feelings. Obviously, that is progress. Obviously, it is fantastic news for all residents in this part of St Elizabeth, economically, physically that the road is going to be extended to as far as Junction [and] Southfield is incredible news," said Folb.
"It is fantastic for tourists, tourism and for businesses on the south coast. My only slight sadness is that we got such a beautiful thing going on down here in Treasure Beach, that maybe, we wanted to keep it a secret, but I have never been one who would want to stand in the way of progress or economic growth. That news is just fantastic for the economy; the people on the south coast. For people who would want to travel, it opens up this part of Jamaica very well indeed and overall it will be very well received," added Folb.
However, Government minister and Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Western Floyd Green allayed the concerns. He said that the highway project will bring added benefit with a reduced travel time to Treasure Beach from Kingston and other points.
"The plan as we have discussed would not change the community tourism aspect of areas like Treasure Beach. In fact, it would [be] enhanced, because the number one complaint for people who journey to Treasure Beach is about the road to get there," said Green.
"Based on the discussion we have had thus far and based on what the prime minister has announced, what we are looking at is a combination of things: clearly an extension from Williamsfield that would have you bypass Spur Tree, which I think we all would be very grateful for; and then a highway sort of modifies the existing route by giving you a better road surface, wider roads, and then bypassing main towns along the journey," added Green.
He said that the highway development will benefit towns in St Elizabeth.
"You bypass Junction, Southfield, Black River again from another direction and all of that would ease congestion and stimulate business in all of those areas, because it would be easier to get to them," said Green.
"It wouldn't change the characteristics of an area like Treasure Beach. What it would do is be a positive gain, because when you now look at what would be the travel time from like Kingston down to somewhere like Treasure Beach, it would allow more people now to enjoy what we have which is a clear community tourism product," added Green.
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