Jamaica: Time to take a chance?

Graham Norwood asks if selling homes to foreign buyers could help restore the island's poor image
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The Independent Online

When you dream of a Caribbean holiday home, images of Barbados, St Lucia or Antigua come to mind. Jamaica does not feature - but all that may be about to change. Jamaica is finally selling top-quality second homes to foreign buyers, but with the country's deeply troubled international image, it has a lot of ground to make up.

A total of 1,100 Jamaicans were murdered last year, mostly through gang violence in the capital, Kingston. Travel advice from US and UK governments urge visitors to stay in at night, shun public transport and avoid isolated areas when possible. "Guarded compounds represent the safest accommodation," says the Foreign Office website.

On top of that, inflation is high, leading to occasional political protests, and the island remains a favourite target for hurricanes too.

So the launch of Palmyra - the first development of top-quality new homes chiefly for foreign buyers, at beautiful Montego Bay on the north of the island - could be seen as brave and foolish in equal measure.

But if it succeeds, it could be the scheme that turns Jamaica's image around.

Palmyra's 26 villas and 600 one, two and three-bedroom apartments and penthouses - so new there are no photographs yet - are being described as the equal of any on rival Caribbean islands. The scheme sits in front of turquoise sea and white sand and is next door to a new five-star hotel and resort. For wealthy buyers there will be facilities not hitherto seen on Jamaica, such as a spa complex and concierge services.

Prices range from £230,000 to £1.1m, comparable with rival Caribbean islands and cheaper than similar properties in Barbados, and the homes will be gated. They sit on the Rose Hall Estate, 5,000 acres of land owned by a former Miss USA and senior US Republican, Michele Rollins, but which in the 1700s was Jamaica's biggest sugar plantation.

"If this succeeds, other developers will pile in. There's no point denying Jamaica's problems but it needs a critical mass of development, business and tourism to change. Palmyra is the first step," insists Bob Trotta, the US developer.

The first Palmyra properties will be completed in a year's time, just too late for the Cricket World Cup which opens on the island next March. But buyers can at least play year-round golf on two courses alongside the development.

Smaller Montego Bay developments are also trying to woo Britons. The Greens and West Indies estates both offer plots ranging from half an acre to two acres, priced at £103,000 to £365,000, with a likely £300,000-plus required to build each home.

Jamaican estate agencies such as Sangsters are reporting occasional sales to Britons, chiefly in gated estates such as those at Negril Beach on the west coast, where large houses cost from £250,000 but can go up to 10 times that with facilities such as a private beach.

In the main, it is possible to get a property for little more than £100,000 and have beaches, shops and safe entertainment areas within a few minutes drive. Buyers taking a chance on Jamaica may well strike gold in the long term. The island is rare in the Caribbean in having secure water supply, while its hilly and wild interior, as well as its sunny beaches, make it more ruggedly beautiful than the Bahamas.

Financially, the Cricket World Cup will probably boost foreign demand for homes on Jamaica for the first time, so prices may well rise. In any case, more developers are sniffing around coastal sites on the "safe" northern part of the island, so the area's profile is likely to increase.

Celebrities are one group seemingly undeterred by Jamaica's adverse publicity; Naomi Campbell, Keith Richards, Jane Seymour and Ralph Lauren own homes there, and the late Johnny Cash's house is one of the finest on the island and has just been purchased by the Rose Hall Estate.

But attracting larger numbers of mere mortals may prove tougher.

Palmyra and most other new homes are primarily marketed at Americans - flights from New York are short, and this is where most second-home buyers live. But for Britons the journey is more gruelling. I had a mandatory 150-minute check-in at Heathrow, a 10-hour flight and then 45 minutes clearing Jamaican immigration; on the way back, our flight was greeted by sniffer dogs and drug squad police officers.

The prospect of buyers enduring long flights and then being worried by fear of crime once they arrive in Jamaica is likely to be unappealing to many. Put bluntly, if Jamaica wants substantial numbers of British buyers it must transform its image, and quickly. If it succeeds, the island will undoubtedly be one of the world's most attractive destinations. If it doesn't, the rest of its Caribbean holiday home rivals can breathe easy again.

Palmyra: www.thepalmyra.com, 0845 0519190; The Greens and West Indies estates from Rose Hall Developments, 00876 953 8150; Sangsters estate agency, 00876 969 9693.