Already one of the most popular cruise destinations in the Caribbean, tourist interest has been steadily growing in Jamaica over the past few years.

The island retained its position as a major cruise spot even after the opening of Cuba’s borders to American tourists, which some feared would draw away a sizeable chunk of Jamaica’s visitors.

The Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ) is certainly keen to open up its doors even wider and attract valuable tourist dollars. In order to do so, it has embarked on a multi-billion dollar development plan aimed at two of the island’s biggest ports.

An ongoing renovation project in the Ocho Rios Fishing Village and its adjacent Reynolds Pier was fast-tracked in November, while a $2.5bn port transformation scheme plans to bring Montego Bay back to its former glory as a prime cruise destination.

The prospects are certainly encouraging. Overall cruise passenger numbers have been increasing in 2016, with a 13% rise over the previous year, and brought approximately $111m into Jamaica’s economy, according to tourism minister Edmund Bartlett.

In a flagship event on 22 November, Jamaica welcomed the Harmony of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, at its Falmouth Port. This year, Royal Caribbean’s 8,000-passenger vessel is scheduled to call at the port twice every month.

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By GlobalData

While projections for 2017 promise the visitor flow to continue in the same vein, the government is currently hurrying to invest big money in the country’s ports, in the hope they will continue to funnel in even bigger rewards.

Ocho Rios: fishing village turns into glistening resort

Formerly a quiet fishing town on the north coast of Jamaica, Ocho Rios in the Parish of Saint Ann is now a prime holiday destination, brimming with tourists keen to experience Jamaica’s cultural flavours.

The town currently welcomes cruise ships via two piers, one of which doubles as a sugar and limestone dock.

In October last year, PAJ’s project manager Christopher Hamilton announced a $230m renovation project for Reynolds Pier, which would bring improvements to the parking area, better transportation links and a new promenade for pedestrians.

Work began shortly after the announcement, and the first phase of the project was on track to be completed in December.

“Cruise shipping has never been better in Jamaica.”

“We will certainly give the facility a friendlier look and ease the congestion as best as possible,” Hamilton told the Jamaica Star at the time. “We want to create that ‘wow’ factor that makes our visitors as comfortable as possible by creating a kind of experience that will give them a positive first impression of Jamaica.”

According to Bartlett, $102m had been earmarked for the redevelopment of the promenade from the Marina to the parking lot at Ocho Rios Bay Beach, while the remaining $184m was dedicated to the Main Street from Turtle River Road to the Ocean Village Shopping Centre. More than $1bn has been invested in the resort town over recent years, Bartlett added.

As part of the project, the old fishing village was demolished and “will be replaced by a new facility where visitors will be able to enjoy quality seafood in a first-class atmosphere,” according to PAJ’s procurement specialist Leonard Bailey.

Close to the new establishments, “a number of souvenir shops and small bars” will be leased to local entrepreneurs, Bailey said.

Montego Bay: catering to modern cruise demands

About 100km west of Ocho Rios, Montego Bay stands as another famous Jamaican destination, and the country’s fourth largest city.

Montego Bay lost its top cruise spot status to Falmouth in 2010, and has spent the following six years being somewhat overshadowed by its two other counterparts.

In June last year, PAJ expressed its commitment to place the city on the map yet again by investing $100m into Montego Bay Port over the next 18 months.

The plan comes after a surge in interest for cruise berthing at the port, which means bringing in new purpose-built facilities.

“Montego Bay lost its top cruise spot status to Falmouth in 2010.”

“We have had to rethink the entire Montego Bay terminal,” Professor Gordon Shirley, CEO of the PAJ, told the Jamaica Gleaner. “In an ideal world, we would have wanted to rebuild that terminal, but the cruise lines want accommodation now, and they want accommodation for home porting.”

However, the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the $2.5bn plan to bring liquefied natural gas (LNG) bunkering capabilities to the port. The plans are looking to increase the berthing capacity at the Montego Bay port to accommodate two dedicated cruise berths, a berth for the handling of containerised and bulk cargo, and another berth for the handling of fuels.

According to PAJ’s vice president Edmond Marsh, “a number of the cruise vessels have signalled that they are in the process of converting to LNG as their fuel source,” and Jamaica is keen to cater to that need.

The initiative comes as the International Bunker Industry Association (IBIA) described the Caribbean as “emerging as a key bunkering hub” in October last year.

Linking growth to the local economy

In Jamaica, tourism still contributes for over 25% of the country’s GDP, and is expected to reach 37.5% in 2025, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

The start of this year has been described as “phenomenal” for cruise tourism in particular. Chairman of the National Cruise Council (NCC) Michael Belnavis said that the ports of Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios have been simultaneously receiving almost two ships per day, and confidently declared that “cruise shipping has never been better in Jamaica.”

Naturally, the profits from this surge in tourism are expected – and promised – to trickle into the local economy and benefit the local population in towns across the country’s coast.

But this might not be as straightforward.

In 2012, the Associated Press interviewed locals in port towns who felt cheated out of the promised benefits of the enormous cruise ships docked on their shores. According to the residents, very little of the tourists’ money reaches small traders and their families, and instead goes into the expensive resorts, restaurants and ubiquitous international chain shops that multiply with every new extravagant development.

This phenomenon was also highlighted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in 2014, which said that although the tourism sector is a relatively significant contributor, “intersectoral linkages from Jamaica’s tourism industry are weak” and that “given the predominance of large, foreign-owned hotels, most tourism earnings do not stay in Jamaica.”

When it comes to the prospect of jobs, despite the opportunities that come with the construction of new port facilities, these jobs are bound to be temporary.

What remains, however, are the luxurious, sprawling promenades and lavish shops that risk acting as a further barrier between the millions of incoming tourists and the authentic culture of Jamaica, supported by small, local vendors.

In a January editorial for the Jamaican Observer, chairman of the Tourism Linkages Network, Adam Stewart, praised the country’s booming tourism sector, but called to establish a tighter relationship between the sector and the domestic economy.

“Sustainable linkages networks equate to identifying the needs of the tourism industry and creating opportunities for our indigenous operators to fill those gaps,” Stewart wrote. “Whether as suppliers of bedding, flatware, glassware, or through farming, opportunities exist for Jamaica’s indigenous operators to benefit and thus retain earnings to boost the local economy.”