jamaica public beaches

Building Walls Around the Sea: Why Jamaica Needs Responsible Tourists

jamaica public beaches

By Christopher Binns

Can you swim on any beach you want to?

There is something magical about the sea. Unfortunately beach access is becoming increasingly limited in Jamaica everyday. Large hotel chains dominate the the North Coast, leaving locals very little space left to freely enjoy a day at the beach. It is vividly evident that the great beauty of our island home comes with an even greater responsibility to love cherish and protect it. Our natural environment is in danger. If only we could see ourselves as custodians of our lands, and sea.

We would be on our way to preserving this jewel of the Caribbean.

I remember traveling from St. Ann to Negril in the 70’s.  All along the luscious North Coast I marveled at the opulent greenery on one side, and the blues of the Caribbean crashing on the rugged coastline on the other. There was always something soothing about leaving the hills where we lived, and seeing the sea stretched before you in all its glory. It is part of living on my island home  that is unquantifiable. Over the years I have come to recognize the sea as a direct line to eternity. One of the first acts of creation was separating the land from the sea.  Each time I dipped my brown feet into the sea, I touched eternity, and when I learned to swim, I could sink my head into forever and become immortal.

Although the sea surrounds us, trips to the beach were cherished and few as a child. Mama and Aunt Patsy would cook the rice and peas with coconut milk freshly squeezed from a dry coconut we picked in the yard. As the boy, it would be my responsibility to grate the coconut old fashioned style on the tin grater. There would be fry chicken and peppery escovitch fish, hard dough bread and a icy jug of gingery sorrel if it was around Christmas time. We didn’t have a car at home, so maybe Uncle Howie from Kingston would be driving his 70s VW Bug.  Almost any place along the coastline we could stop at a little inlet, spread our blanket and begin the set up. Those days I could only swim in water below my chest where I could stand easily. Despite this I was adventurous, and everyone watched carefully because most of them couldn’t swim either, and an incident would’ve been disastrous. 

Anywhere along the road you could stop and swim, now from Negril to Kingston is a pen and plantation surrounded by concrete walled isolation. Today’s North Coast is broken up by the long walls – hotels build to secure their valued clients by keeping the eyes and feet of locals at a comfortable distance. Even in the sea, which legally belongs to the people of Jamaica are you not safe from security personnel. Knowing the law, some peddlers have resorted to wading or in some cases swimming out into the water with their crafts to solicit sales. I’ve seen with my own eyes security personnel employed by a hotel of which I worked throwing stones at the peddlers to force them out the water. Behind those walls usually are some of the best beaches. Between the walls is whatever is left. 

Puerto Seco beach in Discovery Bay  is an iconic beach Jamaicans flock to, especially on holidays. A company has recently acquired the beach, closed it to the public, and then decided to “consult” with the local community, telling members very little.

Mahogany Beach in Ochi was a favorite beach, almost every Friday I would leave the dense moisture of the hills and come down to the coast. Winding off the main road, you could take a short cut through the BiBiBips restaurant down some perilous steps, across the fresh water stream that came out of the rocks on the shoreline, and finally to this little inlet of a beach. There is a Mineral spring running right through it. This was where I spent many a day relaxing and soothing the aches and pains of hard farm work.  Upon arrival, I used to walk around and clean up all the plastic bags, cups, plastic bottles and styrofoam containers littered on the beach. Some left by beach goers, others were tossed upon shore by the sea in her unrelenting efforts to clean herself. Mahogany is now officially closed to the public, so is Reggae beach.

 Unfortunately, one of the main reasons we are losing the beautiful parts of our island to private interest is because we the locals don’t recognize the need to nurture and protect our natural resources, and the government has taken this as a sign to sell them out to preferred bidders. However, a brave few are fighting tooth and nail all over the island to preserve the few public beaches left. Winifred beach in Portland has been the source of heated legal battle between the community residents and the Governments Urban Development Corporation. Residents have won an injunction keeping the beach open to public access. Little Dunns River a beach popular with locals and a much smaller version of the major tourist attraction of Dunn’s River Falls also came under threat from the UDC.  Through protests lead by Friends of Little Dunn’s River it currently remains open to the public.

 There are few beaches that share this status left in  Jamaica, especially on the North Coast. So when we feel for some Vitamin Sea, Sugar Pot beach in St. Mary is a lovely beach, as well as James Bond Beach which has recently undergone some renovations. Priory beach and Flavours in Runaway Bay are still local favorites and free of charge.  There are also beautiful river spots like IRIE River and Blue Hole. When we really want to go off the beaten track, a road trip to Treasure beach on the South Coast is essential. Here you’ll find untouched beaches lush and beautiful, most of them free and open to the public. The south coast is also less developed and offers much respite from the high traffic North Coast.

The key to saving Jamaica’s beaches is generating a sense of environmental responsibility amongst locals. Government needs to enforce dumping policies, and provide adequate garbage disposal units. The environmental ministry is now in the hands of the new prime minister, and we are hoping he will recognize that any future for Jamaica lies in  uncompromisingly protecting the environment. Residents across the island are becoming conscious of our need to nurture and protect the natural environment. Radio programs like IRIE FMs Running African with Ka’Bu Ma’at Kheru offers a voice for the people and helps to organize activism and protests.

Coastal Clean Up Day is also an opportunity to do the work of cleaning up the copious amounts of rubbish which is often deposited along the shoreline. Groups like the Jamaica Environmental Trust are leading campaigns like Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica promoting environmental awareness and actively working to keep beaches and shorelines clean. There is an active turtle hatching community trying to protect our endangered sea turtles. There are fish sanctuaries which are trying to protect endangered species like the parrotfish, a friend to the coral reef. The Discovery Bay Marine Lab is making valiant efforts to create awareness of our marine interests especially amongst young people, and helping to secure various sections of the sea as protected areas. In Portland, the Alligator Head Foundation is working to maintain the East Portland Shoreline, which has recently been declared a protected area. Combine this with the fact that the latest trend in travel in Jamaica is folks looking for alternatives to the all inclusives. Visitors are seeking an experience where they are actively looking to interact with the local population, visit places off the beaten track and contribute to the protection and development of our natural resources. There is hope for a brighter future for our beaches and our sea life.

Photo of beach via Shutterstock

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