Anthony Bourdain’s Take on Jamaica
By HUME JOHNSON, PHD
‘Who owns Jamaica’? This was the BIG question forming the backdrop of Anthony Bourdain’s recent ‘Parts Unknown’ programme on Jamaica aired on CNN on Sunday November 16, 2014. It is a profound question, and the answer was clear. Wealthy hoteliers and business tycoons buying up properties to service the formidable tourism sector that underlines much of their wealth. Bourdain called it for what it is – ‘Locking tourists into compounds’ under the tag ‘all-inclusive’. He wanted to understand the logic behind this.
“It’s a business model that works so, yes, Jamaica will essentially remain a service economy…” says owner of Island Records, and the man behind the success of Bob Marley, Chris Blackwell in answer to Bourdain.
But Bourdain uncovered what Jamaicans already knew. An economy prepped almost solely for tourism and a service economy that would make the rich richer, and keep the majority black Jamaican majority further impoverished.
A trip to Trident Castle in Portland run by Jamaican billionaire, and one of the world’s richest men, Michael Lee Chin, and the famous Golden Eye, owned by music tycoon, Chris Blackwell… and it didn’t take Bourdain very long to discover – as he himself remarked – that in Jamaica ‘a small minority controls everything, and the majority are less connected and left out’.
And so his Parts Unknown feature focused primarily on the less connected – the ordinary Jamaican people. He sat down to hear the jolly boys play mento, drank Red Stripe and rum with men as they talk about the development of the lands to service tourism over schools; he watched men almost come to blows over this discussion; Bourdain caught crabs in the night with poor hustlers in Portland, and dined with local women and men at outdoor kitchens, and ate ‘and thoroughly enjoyed ‘home-cooked’ Jamaican cuisine.
Bourdain is without a doubt a true foodie, and as he sampled Jamaica’s food – from dumplings, jerk, festival, breadfruit, ackee and rice and peas to beer and ting, you get the impression that he is not just playing for the camera. The food of this island will stay in his tastebuds and on his heart for a lifetime.
But what is most striking important about Bourdain’s engagement with locals is that in a single programme, he did what the Jamaica Tourist Board and the Government of Jamaica has failed to do in half a century. He returned the ordinary Jamaican people to the centre of the discourse about their own country, and made them – as they ought to be – the representation of Jamaica’s identity and projection of itself to the world.
The ordinary Jamaicans he spoke with lamented their lack of access to their own beaches because the Government has sold them to hoteliers who make the beaches a part of hotel property. In other words, no public access. Jamaicans must pay to attend the beach. The Jamaican people articulated their feelings of betrayal by their own Government.
But the Government of Jamaica has been historically deaf to these laments. The Government’s answer to community impoverishment is to remake local areas into tourism spots. Not many folks are happy with these developments. They feel while tourism is important to growing the economy, a deepening of tourism renders an unskilled, under educated population mere servants to a white visitor – a contemporary version of the plantation.
Bourdain unmasked the flaws of the Jamaican Government’s tourism centric model of developing and promoting Jamaica. Though I would’ve preferred to see a wider context of the economy and the extraordinary Jamaican talent in industry, science and technology, sports and education, Bourdain ‘Parts Unknown’ was a refreshing and authentic perspective on Jamaica.
It works because it positions the sun, sand and sea where it should be – at the periphery of Brand Jamaica, and locates the people at the centre. The Government is obliged to take heed; to take the world, as Bourdain did, to the ‘parts unknown’ in Jamaica.