In Kingston, Jamaica, a tourism renaissance fueled by creativity

Montego Bay. Ocho Rios. Negril. Falmouth. Most visitors to Jamaica are familiar with the island’s main tourist districts, but there’s one destination that’s been missing from most Jamaican travel itineraries for half a century: the capital, Kingston.

That could be about to change significantly.

Jamaica is a relatively small island nation of about three million people, but thanks to
Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, Usain Bolt and many more, billions of people around the world are familiar with Jamaican culture.

Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, is the undisputed cultural heart of Jamaica.

Yet relatively few visitors to Jamaica spend time in Kingston, which has struggled with the inconveniences of being far from the island’s popular beach destinations and also a reputation for crime and gang-related violence.

However, a much different vision for Kingston is emerging, fueled by an increase in visitation to the city by cruise ships and a desire to empower the vibrant local creative community by creating a new arts district that would occupy the heart of the downtown waterfront. -City of Kingston.

“We are expanding our tourism offerings beyond Jamaica’s north and west coasts,” says Carey Wallace, executive director of Jamaica’s Tourism Enhancement Fund, which leads the country’s tourism-related infrastructure and human capital development. “Jamaica is big enough to have a variety of diverse offerings – you can come to one country and have so many experiences.”

The opening of the AC Hotel Kingston in 2019 was a major injection of energy for the city.

Wallace described Kingston as “the new frontier of tourism” in Jamaica, noting that the new highway between Kingston on the south coast and Port Antonio on the north coast is not only intended to transport visitors arriving at Norman International Airport Manley from Kingston to the beaches, but also to encourage visitors to come and see Kingston.

“We have a long-term conversation about Jamaica’s economic development,” said Andrea Dempster Chung, co-founder and executive director of Kingston Creative, a nonprofit arts organization whose mission is to use arts and culture to achieve social and economic transformation in Jamaica.

“When you look at the creative economy around the world, it’s something that we [in Jamaica] are very good and have a natural edge,” she said, noting the country’s vibrant performing and visual arts community. “We have to figure out how to convert that raw talent into growth.”

Chung, who also owns the Bookophilia Bookstore & Cafe on Hope Road in Kingston, says downtown Kingston “has always been a hub of creativity”. To some extent, Kingston is already better positioned today than it has been in decades. Port Royal Cruise Terminal, which began receiving cruise ships in 2020, drops visitors off at the location of the Caribbean’s most notorious pirate town. Likewise, travelers arriving at Kingston Airport are less than a 15-minute drive from Port Royal.

Destroyed by an earthquake in 1692, the ruins of Port Royal can be seen both on land and underwater within walking distance of the cruise pier, which in turn is just across the harbor from Kingston from the capital itself. The Port Royal Museum, which will house artifacts from the sunken city and tell the story of its rise and fall, is set to open later in 2022 at the cruise terminal.

Downtown, a series of murals along Fleet Street provide a welcoming sight, with walls and buildings in the Parade Gardens area now adored by works of art from painters around the world. The Paint the City murals and other cultural attractions have been mapped for visitors by Kingston Creative, which also offers monthly art tours around the city.

Orange Street, aka “Beat Street”, is destined to be one of the hubs of Kingston’s downtown arts district; Once the home of Sir Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One Records and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Prince Buster’s Record Shack, Beat Street is anchored by record store Rockers International. “The plan is to make this street a journey to reggae music,” Wallace explains.

A recent proliferation of AirbnB properties has opened up access to some of the communities made famous by reggae song lyrics, like Trenchtown, where visitors can listen to local music and connect with residents of the Trenchtown Culture Yard. The Reggae Hostel in Trenchtown not only offers inexpensive accommodation, but also Jamaican dance lessons.

For visitors looking for more traditional accommodation, Kingston is home to several tourist hotels, including the AC Marriott (a partnership between Sandals and Marriott), Spanish Court Hotel, R Hotel Kingston, Jamaica Pegasus, Courtleigh Hotel and – in the nearby Blue Mountains and overlooking the city, the elegant Strawberry Hill.

jamaica hilton kingston
The rooftop swimming pool at the ROK Hotel.

Another new hotel on the downtown waterfront just opened

: Hilton’s very first Tapestry Collection hotel in the Caribbean, the “ROK”.

Kingston isn’t entirely unknown: younger, more adventurous backpackers and tourists are already coming to the city to stay in downtown hostels and dance at venues like the Kingston Dub Club and 22 Jerk. If there’s one place in Kingston that’s familiar to mainstream tourists, it’s the Bob Marley Museum, housed in the legendary reggae artist’s former home on Hope Road.

jamaican strawberry
Strawberry Hill is a short drive from Kingston.

The city is also home to Emancipation Park, highlighted by Jamaican artist Laura Facey’s statue celebrating the victory of Jamaicans over slavery, and the 2,000-acre Hope Gardens, the largest botanical gardens in the English-speaking Caribbean. Devon House, a Kingston mansion later built by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire, is undergoing a multi-million dollar makeover that will see the elegant home’s sprawling courtyard used for food, music and cultural events, Wallace says — a great addition to a city that sometimes lacks event venues.

Kingston is also surrounded by the Blue Mountains: the lush peaks, famous for coffee growing, are just half an hour’s drive from the city centre. And visiting Kingston doesn’t mean forgoing the beach: Hellshire Beach, about 15 minutes outside the city, is known for its surf shacks selling local escovitch fish.

The Bob Marley Museum is just the start of Kingston’s oversized musical heritage: there’s a separate museum just down the street honoring reggae legend Peter Tosh, for example, and new music Fresh are still produced at Big Yard Music Studios. The Alpha Institute, considered the birthplace of ska music, continues its mission to educate young Jamaican musicians.

The Kingston Art District has yet to be officially designated, and other aspects of the city’s redevelopment into a more visitor-friendly destination are still underway.

For Chung, the renaissance must be built on the essentials of authenticity.

But Chung envisions a future where buses and ferries take visitors from the cruise port and airport to downtown Kingston to explore the city, rather than leaving them to linger for a few hours at the cruise port or take a taxi to a seaside resort.

“We have more momentum and movement than we’ve seen in years to revitalize Old Town Kingston,” Chung said. “Authenticity is super important, and it’s not a manufactured art district. It’s always been there, but it’s a very fragile ecosystem that gentrification would destroy. We need people to stay in their communities and continue to produce this crop.

Allowing locals to thrive in the downtown arts district would keep them invested in the tourist experience, Chung argues, making skeptics wary of the meager benefits offered by past tourism investments into proponents of community tourism.

“New opportunities for economic growth are also a factor in reducing crime,” Chung said, addressing what is likely the biggest barrier to greater footfall in Kingston.

Wallace adds, “Technology has enabled more tourism entrepreneurship,” such as starting an AirBnB. “While tourism used to be in the hands of a few wealthy people, it is now seen as something that everyone can enjoy,” he says.

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