The most important thing to remember in any visit to a foreign country is that your dollar is your most substantive demonstration of support. Jamaica is an expensive place to live by any measure, and foreign currency is the chief economic driver. The benefit, or lack thereof, that tourism brings to the island is dependent on where the incoming dollars end up. Though rock-bottom all-inclusive packages are an easy way to control your vacation spending, it should be noted that the money that flows to these groups 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.
Jamaica has gone through several different eras of tourism development dating back to the booming banana trade in the late 1800s. Up until the 1960s Jamaica remained a niche destination for the early yacht set, which later became the jet set. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the hippie movement discovered Jamaica, and large groups would tour around on motorbikes, reveling in the laid-back lifestyle and plentiful herb. Montego Bay was the upscale destination on the island, with Port Antonio the playground of movie stars and Negril a newly discovered fishing beach only just connected by road to the rest of Hanover parish. In those days the numbers of visitors were low and, outside Montego Bay, the environmental impact of tourism was negligible. Then came the all-inclusive resorts, the largest of which, Sunset Jamaica Grande, had 750 rooms by 2006. Since 2006, several new hotels have been built along the North Coast with over 1,000 rooms. The water resources required by these facilities puts a huge strain on the environment, as does wastewater, which is often poorly or minimally treated before being dumped into the sea. The enormous demand for food at these establishments generally is insufficiently met by local producers. These hotels cite inconsistency in the local market as a factor in their heavy reliance on imported goods.
Perhaps the best way to make a positive impact with a visit to Jamaica is by promoting "community tourism" by staying in smaller, locally run establishments and eating at a variety of restaurants rather than heeding the fear tactics that keep so many tourists inside gated hotels. Treasure Beach in St. Elizabeth parish is a mecca for community tourism, where the few mid-size hotels are far outnumbered by boutique guesthouses and villas, many of which are locally owned.
In the past 10 years the Jamaican government has opened the country to an incursion from multinational hotel groups that are some of the most blatant culprits of environmental destruction. Ever-larger all-inclusive resorts are covering what were a few years ago Jamaica's remaining untouched stretches of coastline. The absence of beaches has not inhibited developers from making their own, at incalculable environmental cost to the protective coral reefs and marinelife they support along much of the coast. When scuba diving and snorkeling along Jamaica's reefs, make your impact minimal by not touching the coral.
The bauxite industry is an important foreign exchange earner for Jamaica but the environmental costs are clear. The Ewarton Aluminum Plant in St. Ann is noticeable by its stench for kilometers around, and from the heights of Mandeville several bauxite facilities scar the landscape. Discovery Bay and Ocho Rios have important export terminals, as does Port Kaiser in St. Elizabeth with another bauxite port, and Rocky Point in Clarendon and Port Esquivel in St. Catherine.
Environmental education in Jamaica is seriously lacking. Environmental awareness has only recently been directly linked to the island's tourist economy by some of the more responsible tourism groups. The difference in sanitation and upkeep between the leisure destinations frequented principally by Jamaicans rather than foreign tourists is marked. Choice spots like Salt River in Clarendon are littered with trash, while other popular local spots like Bluefields Beach Park in Westmoreland make greater efforts to clean up after their patrons. Regardless of how senseless it may seem to take a green stance when it comes to litter in the face of gross negligence on the part of Jamaicans themselves, it's important to be aware of the fact that Jamaicans watch visitors very carefully: Make a point of not trashing the country, even if you seem to be up against insurmountable odds.
Water Table Salination
Several coastal areas suffer salination of the water table when water is extracted more rapidly than it is replenished. While Jamaica is blessed with high rainfall in the east and abundant hydrology generally, there will likely be an increasing problem in drier northwest coast areas where new all-inclusive resorts are being built. Wherever you end up staying, the best way to lessen your impact on finite water resources is by not taking long showers and by heeding the requests made at many of the more responsible and proactive hotels to reuse towels during your stay rather than throwing them on the floor after a single use for housekeeping personnel to deal with.
Despite the known harm it causes and the ensuing potential for erosion, slash-and-burn agriculture remains the predominant means of smallholder cultivation in rural areas. While significant portions of land have been designated as protected areas across Jamaica, pressure on the environment, especially around tourism boom towns like Ocho Rios, where little planning preceded the influx of workers from other parishes, is leaving the water supply under threat and causing erosion where forestlands on steep inclines are cut for ramshackle housing settlements.