KINGSTON, Jamaica (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One recent holiday, a carload of Jamaicans went in search of a beach to have a picnic. On an island with nearly 800 km (500 miles) of coastline, they did not think it would be hard.
But it was nearly impossible. They drove from beach to beach, only to be rebuffed by high admission fees, restrictive rules and dirty water.
In Jamaica, where the Tourism Board website promises “long sandy stretches”, “crystal clear water” and “secret coves,” locals are largely cut off from the postcard-pretty beaches.
Many beachfront properties on the Caribbean island are in private hands, charging admission fees exorbitant by local standards, and only a handful are public, prompting a campaign this year calling for affordable beach access.
“You drive up, down, and around and you can’t find anything,” Carolyn Cooper, a newspaper columnist who recently looked for a beach with some friends, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
One thwarted stop was Pearly Beach, Cooper wrote in Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner. “We might as well have gone to the Pearly Gates. St Peter would not let us in.”
Jamaica’s beaches tend to be held by developers and resorts catering to its $2.5 billion annual tourism industry, which accounts for a third of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
Only a dozen public beaches are operational, according to the government’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), and even some of those charge visitor fees. Another 22 public beaches need rehabilitation and four are being upgraded.
The two beaches nearest the capital, Kingston, are in need of rehabilitation, according to NEPA.
“There are fewer and fewer beaches that ordinary people can go to, even with a fee. They are sort of disappearing behind walls, gates and fences,” said Diana McCaulay, chief executive officer of Jamaica Environment Trust (JET).
“BIG UP WI BEACH”
JET has launched a campaign this year called “Big Up Wi Beach” (Big Up Our Beaches), calling on the government to offer affordable beach access.
One proposal is to require a minimum number of public beaches per parish, designating beaches for specific purposes such as recreation or enjoyment of nature and licensing vendors.
Advocates point to other parts of the Caribbean such as Barbados, where all beaches are public and beachfront resorts are required to provide public access points to the waterfront.
The Jamaican government agency NEPA said in a recent letter to The Gleaner that it was revising the policy on beach access and would present a draft to the Jamaican cabinet this year.
NEPA did not respond to a request for details.
McCaulay says draft revisions on the island’s beach policy have been underway off and on since 1998.
“They have just not wanted to tackle it,” she said.
Struggles for access to Jamaica’s coastline are nothing new. Laws regarding rights to the coastline were passed in the Beach Control Act of 1956, a holdover from colonial times, when beaches were owned by the British Crown.
The Act, that remained in place until Jamaica got independence in 1962, did not give the island nation’s 2.7 million people legal right to beach access.
As well as campaigning, JET has been providing legal advice to vulnerable community-managed public beaches.
With JET’s help, the community-run Winnifred Beach in the northeast won a long legal fight to remain public in 2014, thwarting a resort development plan threatening to limit access.
For some, the roots of the policy go back to Jamaica’s history of slavery and colonization.
“That’s just the legacy of our history. The majority of the society wasn’t expected to enjoy the benefits of the society,” Cooper said.