A favorite of North American honeymooners, Jamaica is one of the most densely populated islands of the Caribbean and has a vivid sense of its own identity. Its history, long rooted in the plantation economy, has now given way to tourism, bringing prosperity to some but also causing social unrest. The turbulent and impassioned politics of Jamaica are the most volatile in the Caribbean.
Despite a regrettable increase in crime and harassment of tourists by vendors in such resorts as Ocho Rios, Jamaica remains one of the most successful black democracies in the world. Its people also share a sense of humor so keen and so strongly developed that it's probably helped them get through many hard times, political and economic.
The island is large enough to allow the more or less peaceful coexistence of all kinds of people within its beach-lined borders -- including everyone from expatriate English aristocrats to dyed-in-the-wool Rastafarians. Overall -- and despite its long history of social unrest, political turmoil, unemployment, drugs, and increasing crime -- it remains among the top three or four most intriguing islands in the Caribbean to visit.
Agriculture and mining, the traditional ways that Jamaicans have earned money, have declined in relation to tourism. If anything, Jamaica moves deeper into the millennium almost too heavily dependent on tourism. When the world economy grew shaky and its number of visitors diminished, Jamaica was adversely affected.
Jamaica's economy was battered even before the recent global financial slowing. Like that of the United States, its debt burden grows. Export earnings continue a downward spiral. With little money to keep them in state-of-the-art or even passable condition, its highways and city streets -- especially those in Kingston -- are potholed and pitted. Imported goods and food -- often from Asia -- undercut local farmers, making it tougher for them to eke out a living. And even though its soil is extremely fertile, the island has had severe summer droughts.
Fortunately, the mindless violence of the 1970s, when political differences were often settled by gunfire, has ended. Under then-Prime Minister Michael Manley, many of Jamaica's young doctors, educators, and other professionals left the country for careers in the United States or England. Under Manley's successor, Prime Minister Edward Seaga, some came back -- they are known as "returnees" -- and they've rekindled enterprises that had been allowed to decline under Manley. Nevertheless, as Jamaica continues its march into the 21st century, with its population ever growing, it remains a troubled land, the most chaotic in all the Caribbean.
Yet it is so exotic, so fascinating, we find ourselves looking forward eagerly to our annual visit.
But, as any Jamaican looking into an uncertain future will tell you: "We've come a long way, mon, but we've got a long way to go."