TravelWatch: How to Taste the Real Jamaica

TravelWatch
Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
February 9, 2004

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every other week.

The brown handball-size fruit the vendor offers me looks positively rotten. The inside is just as brown—soft and drippy, too. "Dis is a naseberry." Here, deep in the Jamaican countryside at a crude roadside stall, I muster my cross-cultural courage and bite into the putrid-looking thing. Sweet, delicious. "Wow!" I bite again. Heck, if we had naseberries back home, I'd eat a lot more fruit and relieve my fretting wife.

You don't get many naseberries in the all-inclusive resorts strung along Jamaica's north coast, or much of any local flavor for that matter. For authenticity you need community tourism, argues Diana McIntyre-Pike, the passionate Jamaican who has campaigned for over a quarter century to pry visitors out of those hedonistic refugee camps on the beach. "See the real countryside," she urges. It was she who took me to the fruit stall.

Community tourism is gaining recognition in oddly assorted corners of the world: the southern United States, eastern Europe, South Africa, and—thanks to McIntyre-Pike and her allies—the Caribbean. She has started a flock of organizations dedicated to giving us travelers a more authentic experience while putting our tourism dollars into the hands of local people and not just big hotel chains and global tour operators. Some big companies see authenticity to be in their interest as well; encouraged by McIntyre-Pike, the Jamaican-owned Sandals chain is now adding community-style day tours to its roster of activities.

In Jamaica they call her "Thunderbird," and she likes it. "Because of my personality," she says, "I don't give up." Her country-style travel experiences put the lie to the image some foreign beachgoers have of Jamaica: sand and sex, crime and pushiness. Traditional values still thrive in upcountry towns like McIntyre-Pike's home city of Mandeville. Said a Quebecois college grad working there for Diana, "I was surprised to see how polite people are to each other."

In one short day, I learned the real way to eat another roadside delicacy, "spicy shrimp" (chomp down on it, shell and all), toured the veranda-rich colonial neighborhoods of Mandeville, and visited Treasure Beach, the south-coast settlement where McIntyre-Pike first launched her community tourism efforts. As a result, local involvement in decision-making has helped to keep the area a low-key, down-home kind of place, where fishermen and sunbathers share the beach, more or less amicably, and you can still find a decent U.S. $40-a-night guest house.

Short on time, I must skip many other local tours championed by McIntyre-Pike (www.accesscommunitytourism.com)—the manatee lagoon trip, the hiking trip, the rum-estate tour with tastings (a shame about that one), the plantation bird-watching morning, and the "cooking experience." But I do follow her directions to the south coast's Black River wetland, where 300 endangered American crocodiles survive. Three small local companies offer pontoon-boat tours. I take one with nine other tourists, all Jamaican, most of them from the capital, Kingston.

Our captain briefs us on the ecosystem as he motors up to where one croc floats lazily in a backwater. "This is Margaret," he announces. The guides have named many of the animals.

"Ewww, she's ugly!" says a teenage city girl, wide-eyed. "What happens if you fall in?" Replies an older woman, "I would be like Jesus an' run on de water." You could call it a community-tourism moment—intimate, human.

Selling community tourism to policymakers can require a firebrand like McIntyre-Pike. In many countries, government authorities tend to equate tourism with high-volume amusement and recreation, not with true travel or sense of place. At Black River, tour operator Shirley Chung recalls how a government team showed up and proposed putting a tourist-amusement gazebo in the middle of the river, which is a nature preserve. One of the "experts" also complained that it was too hard to tell the crocodiles apart. His solution: "You should paint them different colors."

Go get 'em, Thunderbird.

A River Runs Through … Mongolia

Continued on Next Page >>


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