Anthony Bourdain’s Take on Jamaica

By HUME JOHNSON, PHD

Anthony Bourdain - Chef, Author and TV personality. Photo Credit - CNN.com

Anthony Bourdain – Chef, Author and TV personality. Photo Credit – CNN.com

‘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.

Anthony Bourdain with Island Records boss, Chris Blackwell.  Photo Credit - ZPZ Productions.

Anthony Bourdain with Island Records boss, Chris Blackwell.
Photo Credit – ZPZ Productions.

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’.

Bourdain and his film crew lyming with Jamaicans. Photo Credit - ZPZ Productions.

Bourdain and his film crew lyming with Jamaicans. Photo Credit – ZPZ Productions.

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.

Anthony Bourdain sampling Jamaican food. Photo Credit - CNN.com

Anthony Bourdain sampling Jamaican food.
Photo Credit – CNN.com

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.

Jolly Boys play Mento  in Port Antonio. CNN's Path Unknown.  Photo Credit - CNN.com

Jolly Boys playing Mento in Port Antonio for CNN’s Path Unknown.
Photo Credit – CNN.com

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.

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7 Comments on “Anthony Bourdain’s Take on Jamaica

  1. Great job Hume, and very quick return on your commentary. Remember, it’s a food show, he couldn’t go so deep.

    • Well said, its a food show. Bourdain’s practice of eating on the side of the road should not surprise, that’s his trademark. Two things came home to me; the arrogance of one host calling him “dumb” really shall I say classless. And the practice of the govt. to just throw everything into a deal when selling, sell the land, leave the beach. As Bourdain said he has traveled and seen governments sell beachfront properties but not the beach,water and deny access to the public.Problem is they keep doing it again and again.
      I was surprised however that a lover of the pig has Bourdain is, he went to Portland, land of Boston and no jerk pork. I guess his producers dropped the ball there.

  2. Great summary and perspective, the local tourism industry model needs to be looked at again. The interesting thing is that if the product offering is opened up to locals, community, micro small and media size enterprise and Cultural Tourism becomes the icon the large hoteliers would still benefit from the increase visitor arrival. All indication is that heritage tourism and cultural tourism is one of the growing markets.

    What we need to ensure however is the standards and service expectations as it relates to this expanded model.

  3. This is a well written piece by Dr. Johnson; but as she herself states, it is actually a narrow focus on one area of our economy and culture in a particular geographic location of the island

  4. Mr Boudain is a food and travel practitioner. I’d be concerned if he had gone focusing on balance of payments and the educational system. He maintained his focus. Happily a foreign medium. CNN, has looked at one aspect of the travesty. Maybe their economic correspondent and social affairs journalists could do us a favour and probe other areas. We’ve seen that nothing happens until an alarm is raised in foreign jurisdictions. The OLINT boss and the don convicted in New York both pleaded guilty to crimes committed in Jamaica and yet they are not wanted by the law there so thank goodness that eyes are seeing and beginning to understand the codes of teh culture.

  5. I applaud Anthony for addressing this issue. Yes the mega wealthy that want to rob the natives of their land don’t like it. But it is the truth. It’s ok for the mega wealthy to be able to buy their great and wondrous homes and villas… But to take away a man’s and a native man’s pride and property is a travesty. For God sake how hard is it to give them one public beach are you really that selfish. Oh yes, I guess you are. Anthony pegged it right at the end of this episode. Who could do that??????????? Yes, people without a soul or any ability to comprehend what working for a living or really belonging to a place feels like.

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