Updated: Jan 29
"America cannot be long blind to the wonderful advantages offered by this beautiful spot as a winter resort."
So wrote the much-travelled author, Ella Wheeler Wilcox in the early 1900s. Today, tourism has become a mainstay of Jamaica's economy – about 30% before the Covid-19 pandemic. During Ms. Wilcox's time, travelers to Jamaica came aboard United Fruit Company steamers and also on the Hamburg-American Line West Indian cruises. A round trip from New York cost US$75 and took five to six days.The concept of passenger ships goes back to 1818 when the Black Ball Line became the first shipping company to offer a scheduled passenger service from the United States to England. In previous centuries, travel on the high seas had been dedicated to exploration. With the settlement of colonies came the need for communication, so ships began to deliver mail.
During the first half of the 19th century, migration to America by ship was technically the beginning of passenger lines. However, the conditions under which these people sailed bear little resemblance to those offered by the multimillion-dollar luxury vessels today. Poor immigrants, many of whom would die during the crossing as a result of harsh conditions in steerage where they were corralled in a cargo-hold-like space. In contrast, life above deck saw first-class passengers sipping cocktails, dancing to the music of grand pianos, and availing themselves of delicious treats in private dining rooms.
Grandfather of Cruising
Enter Frank Fraser, a Jamaican of Scottish descent, who owned several plantations in the north of the island from which he exported bananas to the U.S. in family vessels. Friendly with the likes of movie star Errol Flynn and General Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Fraser saw Miami's potential as a cruise port and with Trujillo's blessing, began operating a passenger ship owned by the Dominican Government. In the 1950s he established a year-round Miami-based cruise operation.
Trains and planes from the northeast were coordinated with Miami's ship schedule and cruises to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Nassau and Jamaica ensured a quick and relaxing escape from the winter weather. In later years, cruise industry members would come to regard Fraser as the grandfather of a $13 billion industry.
By the mid-1960s, Miami had five cruise lines running out of the city to the Caribbean. Passenger lines created a 'fun ship' image which attracted many people who would have never had the opportunity to travel on the superliners of the 1930s and 1940s. Now the emphasis was on the voyage itself as a destination.
In the 1970s, an unusual event occurred that further entrenched Jamaica's role in cruise history. Spearheaded by a man now regarded as one of the founding fathers of the modern cruise industry, it was called 'New Experiences' and offered on the Starward, one of Knut Kloster's Norwegian Cruise Lines ships.
A Jamaican family would be resident on board the ship to act as ambassadors of Jamaican life and culture. Passengers would meet the family informally, dine, drink, and dance with them, as well as discuss politics and racial problems. Jamaican books, magazines, newspapers, crafts and costumes would be on display and the ship's Jamaican stewards and waiters would agree to take the passengers on tours of the 'real' Jamaica visits to their home, to meet their friends, family, etc.
There was also a 'Meet the People' component where passengers could sign up to meet a Jamaican counterpart, i.e. a doctor could arrange to spend a day with a Jamaican doctor, a teacher, with a Jamaican teacher.
However, as well-intentioned as it sounded in theory, the reality was starkly different. and the program died a quick death.
Cruising in Jamaica Today
Tourism is the largest industry in the world and cruising is by far its fastest growing sector. A $13-billion business, one in seven Americans are said to have been on a cruise.
Ten of the 16 cruise lines operating out of U.S. ports are owned by subsidiaries of the two industry giants Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. These companies have managed to operate with relatively free reign within a global economy getting passengers form the United States, workers from Third World countries and ships built in western European countries whose governments are willing to subsidise its construction in return for the jobs it creates. Technically, everything a cruise ship produces is an export (Garin, 2005, p. 8).
Today, a typical cruise ranges from less than US$100/night to more than US$1,000/night, depending on the type of vessel and services offered. The number of ocean cruise passengers worldwide declined dramatically in 2020 over the previous year due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Overall, the islands of the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Bermuda emerged as the leading global cruise destinations in 2020. Jamaica continued to hold on to its traditional role as one of the marquee ports of the Caribbean. The Caribbean itself (the Western Caribbean to be more exact), remains the most popular cruise shipping region in the world.
Effect of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Cruise Ship Industry
For many years, the cruise industry was booming, riding the crest of a wave that culminated in more than 29.7 million passengers in 2019. In 2020, it was forecast that more than 32 million passengers would go cruising, but then along came COVID-19.
From being the single fastest growth area of the entire tourism industry, the cruise ship industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. As is the case with so many tourism and hospitality businesses, there is no realistic prospect of a sustainable recovery until the pandemic has been brought under control.
A surge in Covid infections on cruise ships is causing mayhem across the industry, leaving passengers stranded aboard ships, exacerbating staff shortages and prompting the CDC to warn US passengers against all cruise travel.
The Jamaican authorities don’t think the CDC’s recent advice against taking a cruise will be something to be concerned about long-term. However, there will be disruptions, cancellations, and diversions of itineraries.
Jamaica Gleaner : Pieces of the Past: Out Of Many Cultures:: Somewhere beyond the sea (jamaica-gleaner.com) Dr. Rebecca Tortello, Contributor. Special Thanks to William Tatham for his assistance in writing this piece.
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An entrepreneur with years of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to project reporting. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief writer/editor for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. Jackie represents an e-commerce business called "Jamaica So Nice" which offers authentic Jamaican products. She speaks about it with animation, "I love the experience of living in Jamaica, and I introduce Jamaica to the world through the "Jamaican experience," which is captured in our people, culture, products and attractions."