Dear Travelers To Jamaica: Please Don’t Come Visit Until You’ve Understood These 4 Things
1. Marijuana isn’t entirely legal.
The laws against marijuana usage are mostly toothless. An oft-repeated joke is that if the police catch you with it, they’re more likely to ask for some than arrest you. Officially, it’s been decriminalized, meaning if you’re in possession under two ounces, you can’t be arrested; only fined $500 Jamaican dollars. (Although that seems like a formidable sum, it is roughly $4 USD.)
Nonetheless, blatantly lighting up in front of a police officer is disrespectful and invites trouble, and by no means are you safe taking it through an airport or official building. You’ll often be approached by vendors in public areas to buy it, but if you’re looking, be careful who you ask. (And don’t expect the desk staff at major hotel chains to point you in the right direction.)
2. Look, don’t touch.
Often when people think of Jamaica, they imagine our vast, brightly colored coral reefs teeming with sea life. And it’s true that snorkelling or scuba diving through Caribbean reefs is an unmissable experience if you appreciate the ocean. But Jamaica’s coral reefs are in danger, with organizations launching massive conservation efforts. Tourism has a huge impact on reefs, especially in the Caribbean, which relies heavily on its coastal regions to attract visitors. If you’re going snorkeling and diving in the country, you’re allowed to look, but make sure you don’t in any way interfere with the coral reefs throughout the region.
Though it is tempting to pick up a tiny piece of coral or shell, snapping a piece off from a live reef is harmful (and also pointless: it won’t last long out of the water).
3. Help out with the litter.
The tourism industry on a large scale — hotels, restaurants, boating companies — have a much bigger role to play in conservation than individual tourists, but that doesn’t mean visitors can’t chip in. On beaches, pick up plastic bottles, plates and cutlery after use. They can end up in the ocean and contribute to the huge pollution problem.
4. The roots of homophobia here are complicated.
Jamaica also has the lamentable distinction of being one of the most homophobic countries in the world. Violent homophobic rhetoric in dancehall lyrics, an archaic law making sex between men illegal, anti-gay graffiti plastered on walls, and sometimes open hostility in urban areas understandably provoke outrage.
This led to the unfortunate ‘Boycott Jamaica’ movement a few years ago, a misguided effort by foreign LGBT activists, and one which exemplifies what can happen when two cultures thoroughly misunderstand one another. (Even LGBT rights workers living in the country pleaded with organizers to reconsider their position.)
Gay couples can vacation safely here, especially on the north coast, where the tourist industry thrives. But it is important to understand you’re walking into a very different landscape, and reasons for prejudice go beyond willful ignorance.
Like most, Jamaicans are not inherently hateful. The roots of homophobia include lack of education, poverty, a need to cling onto religion in dire circumstances, and a very rigid idea of what ‘masculinity’ means in an often unforgiving social environment. As a gay tourist, you will almost certainly be safe (even welcomed) in areas catering to visitors, but should be more careful if you’re venturing into the cities, and try to understand that the seemingly simple bigotry has very complex causes.