On New Year’s Day, a carload of us drove up, down and around Ocho Rios looking for a public beach. Our first stop was Pearly Beach. The name sounded promising. But we might as well have gone to the Pearly Gates. St Peter would not let us in. The security guard said it was a private beach managed by UDC (the Urban Development Corporation). It could be rented but it was not open to the general public without prior arrangements.
We wondered if we should forget about finding a decent public beach and just go to one of the hotels. So we stopped at Jamaica Inn. Unfortunately for us, but not for them, they were at full occupancy. And their policy is not to issue day passes when the hotel is full. The view from the hotel lobby showed hardly anybody on the beach. But hotel policy is hotel policy.
We asked the receptionist if there was a public beach nearby and we were told about one in the centre of Ocho Rios. That’s not a beach. It’s a port. Back on the road, we kept looking for a public beach and we were sent to Sugar Pot beach. That’s not a beach. It’s a wasteland. We were well salt.
‘NO FOOD & DRINKS’
We decided to try our luck at Bamboo Beach. The sign at the entrance boldly announced that this was PRIVATE PROPERTY. And there was a long list of rules and regulations including: No drugs, no firearms or weapons, no ganja smoking, no profanity, vulgar language or loud behaviour and no soliciting. All very well and good!
But we were not amused to find that food and drinks were prohibited. The gate hostess informed us that the car would have to be searched and if we did have food and drink there were two options. We could either eat and drink before going on the property. Or we could leave our food with the security guard. Neither option was appetising.
The last item on the sign read: “Please call management to report any questions or concerns”. We got voicemail. So we kept going. By now, we had wasted a lot of beach time looking for a beach. We decided to try Shaw Park Beach Hotel. For US$65 each we could access the beach and get lunch. Or we could pay J$1,000 each to go to the adjacent White River beach, entry to which was controlled by Shaw Park.
We decided on the latter option since food and drink were not prohibited. But, alas, the White River beach was not a beach. The river had been in spate so the water was muddy. The beach was dirty. There was a dog roaming around. We quickly ate our food in less than ideal circumstances.
On the way out, I complained to the manager of the hotel. He was surprised that we had been sent to the beach because he knew it was not in a good condition that day. And he cheerfully refunded the entry fee. That was some consolation. But after all of that upping and downing, we still hadn’t gone to the beach!
On Tuesday, I called the UDC office in Kingston to ask about access to Pearly Beach. I was advised to send an email to the director of corporate communications, which I did. I proposed that one of the priorities of urban development ought to be ensuring access of all Jamaicans to public beaches in ways that are consistent with local cultural values – for example, self-catering. Patrons should not be held hostage by beach operators who attempt to force them to buy food and drink on the property. UDC has not yet responded.
The Jamaican Government needs to take lessons from Barbados. All beaches in Barbados are, by law, national parks and cannot be privatised. Every citizen of Barbados has access to all beaches. One of my favourites is Accra Beach, named after the capital of Ghana. Both locals and tourists enjoy the beach which reminds me of Hellshire. Full of vibes!
By the way, if the Government doesn’t move quickly to build back the reef at Hellshire, the beach will die. Imagine, Kingston is sitting on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world and we don’t have a single beach in the city. We have turned the harbour into a cesspool.
There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about record visitor arrivals. We welcome these foreigners. But we simply can’t forget about local tourists who also want to enjoy the beauty of our homeland. We have to launch a national campaign to take back Jamaica’s beaches from private operators. In the 1970s we used to say we’re more than a beach, we’re a country. Now, we need to claim our beaches. They should belong to all Jamaicans. Not just a few hoteliers.
And the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) needs to look carefully at its ads for the North American market. There are hardly any black tourists! It seems as if even Jamaicans in the diaspora who come home often are not recognised as tourists. We only want their remittances! The issue of beach access may not just be about locals. Perhaps, for the JTB, the ideal tourist is really not black.