Responsible tourism in Jamaica

Tourism in Jamaica has gone through several different phases. The island originally became a high-end niche destination for yachties and the jet set before the hippies arrived in the 1960s and ‘70s, followed by vast resorts in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Today, Jamaica is often pigeonholed – as a ‘tropical paradise’ for package tourists or as the land of reggae, Rastas and Bob Marley. But travelers do themselves – and local people – a disservice if they don’t attempt to look behind the version of Jamaica that’s peddled by so many major tourist companies.

Yes, tourism is hugely important to the Jamaican economy, but as companies rush to cater for this demand for a ‘paradise’, much has got lost in the process. All-inclusive resorts and mega cruise ships accommodate large quantities of tourists but offer questionable benefits for local communities, while dolphinariums encourage people to touch and swim with marine animals in a captive environment instead of in the wild where they belong. A vacation here should be about so much more than beaches, and luckily, by avoiding the clichéd Jamaican break, you can also avoid some of its most irresponsible pitfalls, too.

People and culture in Jamaica

All-inclusives and cruise ships

Two of the least responsible tourism models are popular in Jamaica – all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships. Both contribute huge numbers of people to the region, but with limited benefits to the local economy.
Though rock-bottom all-inclusive packages are an easy way to control spending, your money is not widely distributed and typically ends up lining the pockets of a few individuals. What's more, large resorts often pay their workers a pittance, and staff are sometimes forced to work unpaid overtime. Some have beaches that are reserved exclusively for guests’ use, with fences and security keeping local people out, leading to resentment towards tourists.
These mega hotels need huge amounts of water to operate and this puts a massive strain on the environment, as does wastewater, which is often poorly or minimally treated before being dumped into the sea. What’s more, the huge demand for food at these hotels often can’t be met by local producers, leading hotels to import much of their produce. Read more about our stance on all inclusive resorts around the world.
Large cruise ships are another mass tourism offender. There are numerous ways in which these floating cities impact negatively on Jamaica and on the oceans themselves. They spew out thousands of tourists to ports at Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Falmouth which stresses infrastructure but delivers little economic benefit. They are polluting and often have a bad record when it comes to treatment of staff. Find out more about why we don’t support or market vacations on large cruise ships.

What you can do
If you like the idea of a resort, seek out those that operate responsibly. The best resorts build a loyal and skilled local workforce, reduce energy costs and waste, source fresh local produce and offer sensitively planned excursions.

Perhaps the best way to make a positive impact, though, is by promoting community tourism by staying in smaller, locally run establishments, eating at a variety of restaurants, and ignoring the scare tactics that some big hotels use to keep people behind their gates. You won’t struggle to find this sort of place in Jamaica, and not only will your money stay within the local community, you’ll get a personal and intimate experience of the destination.

If cruising floats your boat, pick a yacht and take to the waves with a clean conscience, on a clean, non-polluting vessel that supports local people and docks at small harbours that can’t be reached by floating megahotels.

Gay rights

Since being dubbed the most homophobic place on earth by Time Magazine in 2006 Jamaica has made some progress. There’s a growing annual Pride event, and the former minister for justice and the mayor of Kingston have both spoken out publicly in support of J-FLAG, Jamaica’s LBGT rights organisation. Yet negative attitudes towards the LGBT community are entrenched and the punishment for gay sex in Jamaica is up to 10 years in prison with hard labour. Read our article on LGBT travel in Jamaica for more information.


For many visitors, marijuana is an integral part of the Jamaican experience, but until recently possession of even a tiny amount of ganja could land visitors in jail. A recent change in the law has decriminalised the possession of ganja, and there are now licenced medical dispensaries all over the island, but many questions remain, including whether or not tourists buying ganja on the street fuels crime in Jamaica and exacerbates serious drug problems.
As Carmel Hendry from our vacation company Explore explains, “There is a lot being sold on the street and that’s sort of the reason that some travelers go to Jamaica. In Montego Bay, Kingston and some of the beach places you can buy drugs easily and you’ll see people literally walking down the street with big bags of drugs and selling it really openly. Tourism does contribute to the drug problem but because some travelers go and visit specifically to buy weed, sellers know that and that’s how many of them are getting their money.”

Wildlife and environment

Jamaica has more than its fair share of stunning wildlife, but sadly, it’s also home to some really questionable captive animal centers. There are several dolphinariums, including Dolphin Cove in Montego Bay, where tourists can swim with, pet or watch dolphins perform.
At Responsible Travel we believe keeping dolphins, whales and turtles in captivity is morally and ethically wrong, and we encourage travelers to enjoy seeing wildlife in the wild, where it belongs, in ways that support conservation of habitats and species.
What you can do
Don’t visit any captive animal centers. Instead focus on seeing dolphins in the wild. Your operator should steer you away from them in any case. According to Carmel Hendry, “We tell our tour leaders to avoid things that aren’t responsible, but there are places in Jamaica that do a lot of swimming with dolphins and are quite heavily advertised including one near Montego Bay. Customers might ask if they have time to go there and that’s where our tour leaders come in.”
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: pshanson] [Cruise ship: zenm] [Drugs: Dominic Milton Trott] [Dolphin cove: Chad Sparkes]