A tourist paradise, and you're welcome to it

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The Independent Culture
I WAS on my third drink, barely out of airport-sickness, when I looked around me, and began to feel like a prisoner. I was in Jamaica, sitting under a parasol on my hotel terrace, glaring blearily down at the beach, watching the annoying amount of movement in the water, the line of seaweed, the trio of grinning musicians, the head-high fence that surrounded the resort, the locals on the other side of the fence, looking in. I was looking at all the things I hadn't seen in the brochure. Also, at things which I had seen in the brochure, and which had looked fine when photographed from a distance. (Remember, if the beach is really lovely, they show it in close-up).

But when you're in a poor country, you don't have much choice. You can either stay in the tourist compound, and throw your money away, or you can do something even worse - you can get away from the compound, and find out how lovely and unspoilt it is, and then go home and talk enthusiastically about it, eventually turning it, too, into a tourist compound. Which, at the time, seems like a much more refined thing to do.

'I'd like to hire a car.'

'A car? You want to explore the island? No problem, sir. We can book you on a coach party.'

'No, no . . . a car.'

'You want to see the island, sir?'

'Right.'

'I'd advise you to look at this brochure, sir.'

They don't make it easy for you. But you're not making it easy for them. Tourism brings money to a poor country, but it also forces people in the tourist zones to give up their jobs, because it makes much more economic sense to scrounge money from tourists than, say, to grow vegetables. Almost the whole north coast of Jamaica is ruined; it's like a John Carpenter nightmare of beggars and hustlers crowding around the perimeter fences of resorts, waiting. Imagine if the strip of coastline between Dover and Southampton was lined with big guarded hotels full of Japanese tourists with pounds 10,000 pocket money to spend every day. It wouldn't do much for the structure of our society.

I drove the hire car to the gate of the resort, where a liveried guard went into the little ornamental gate house to press a button to raise the automatic barrier. I looked at the people in the road and thought: I can't just drive through them. I wound my window up; my girlfriend left hers open. I decided to drive slowly and consistently, giving them enough time to get out of the way. I didn't want blood on my hands.

I moved off, driving at about five miles an hour, pushing people to either side of my bonnet, seeing them in the windows, now totally surrounded, now pressing the brake to look left, right, and . . . we had escaped. Five miles down the road, slowing at a junction, I nosed into another gaggle. I moved the car slowly forward, touched the brake, and . . . nothing. The engine had stalled. People were knocking their fists and pressing their faces against my window; two arms had entered the car through the six inches of open space at the top of my girlfriend's window. The hands were opening and closing. My girlfriend jumped to the inside edge of the seat, jamming my hand against the gear stick. Fingers were walking along the top edge of the door, searching for the lock; the edge of the window was cutting deep into the forearm. I opened my wallet, took out a wad of low-denomination bank-notes, pushed a few into each hand. I turned the key - yes] - and moved off before the hands got back in again.

Driving south, I could see what a nice country it had been. After five miles, people stepped out in front of your car singly, rather than in packs; also, they had things to sell, like melons or wood-carvings. You could just shake your head, and they would get out of the way. Later, as we pushed ahead into the central range of hills, they didn't even make obscene gestures when you didn't stop.

This was more like it. Lovely countryside, hot and lush, like Southern England in a greenhouse; thin cows and goats in the fields. We drove on. Nobody was bothering us at all. After ten miles, hustlers just sat at the side of the road, displaying their wares, not even moving as you approached. We had reached a point of economic equilibrium, like they have in places where the economy has not been screwed up - if you wanted to buy something, you did. If you didn't that was fine too.

We stopped for a drink in Black River, on the far side of the island. I took my camera out of the car, and went to photograph an old wooden house which leaned to one side; two girls scuttled out of the line of my lens. Here was a place untouched by tourism - poor, backward, quiet, unexciting. Perfect. We drove ten miles along the coast to find a beach, and found a medium-sized bay fringed with vegetation, with a tiny guest house on one side of it. We ordered a sandwich and went down to the beach, which had a rickety wooden jetty. We were the only people.

Five minutes later, the waitress came with our sandwiches.

'Lovely place.'

She pointed across the bay. 'That's one of the nicest beaches for miles.'

'Yeah.' She put the tray down on the little wooden table. I thought: we are doing the worst thing possible - enjoying ourselves in a lovely, poor place. I sat, smiling at the woman, looking at the sandwich, the camera, the sunglasses. My girlfriend was lying on the jetty. The waitress stood still, not in a hurry. What else was there to do?

Then she said: 'It will be even nicer soon.'

'Yes?'

'Oh yes.' She pointed across the bay. 'Next year all those trees will be gone. In two years, the hotel will be built. From here,' she pointed to the end of the bay, 'to there.'

'That big?'

'Yes,' she said. 'Think of all the . . . tourists. It will really put this place on the map.' -

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