Kingston is a bustling commercial center, one of the West Indies' educational hubs, and the heart and soul of Jamaican art, music and history. But the country's capital has had a reputation as a dangerous city ever since it was wracked by political and economic unrest in the late '70s and early '80s. Tourists have, for the most part, avoided the city.
More than a year ago, the U.S. State Department reinforced those fears when it advised Americans to use extra caution when visiting Kingston _ and even when staying in establishments in the north coast resort areas.
The advisory, which was categorized as a notice _ the least serious alert _ was issued because "the level of crime in Kingston exceeds the level of criminal activity elsewhere in the Caribbean," said a State Department official in Washington, D.C., who asked not to be named.
The Jamaican government and its tourist board were more than a little unhappy about the advisory, which came after the country had finally won back substantial tourist business after Hurricane Gilbert devastated the island (and its tourism industry) in 1988.
Jamaican officials took issue with comparing their country _ the third largest island in the Caribbean _ with smaller nations in the region. They complain the comparison is particularly unfair with regard to Kingston, which has a population of 900,000.
"Kingston is a large city with big city problems, but I feel a lot more comfortable in Kingston than I do in many American cities," said Noel Mignott, of the Jamaican Tourist Board, in New York. "I exercise caution in all big cities, as I think all travelers should."
Mignott said there had never been problems around the areas most tourists frequent _ museums, historic and cultural sights _ but that the dangers were in depressed areas, as well as some residential sections, where there have been burglaries.
Wayne McCook, information attache at the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, D.C., noted that Japan had published a guidebook warning Japanese tourists about Washington because of the high crime rate there.
"Would you tell visitors to the United States not to go to your capital?" McCook asked. He cited figures of dropping crime rates in Jamaica during 1991.
How frightened should tourists be, considering the advisory?
This reporter and a companion spent two weeks driving through Jamaica, including three days in Kingston. We never felt threatened or even uncomfortable.
Along the North Coast resort beaches, many Jamaican women approached me to braid my hair, and men wanted to sell us ganja, as Jamaicans call marijuana.
These hustlers were never threatening, and when I made it clear that I intended to alter neither my hair nor my consciousness, they wished me well.
Certainly we avoided walking in isolated areas at night throughout the country, and, in Kingston, we steered clear of the most-impoverished inner city areas _ as we would have in Los Angeles or New York City. We also used a city guide, not so much for fear of crime but to make navigating a complex and new city as efficient and informative as possible.
Kingston was one of the most rewarding stops of our trip. The city is considered both the hub of Jamaican life and its cultural soul. Integral to that are its reggae clubs, carrying on the music brought to worldwide prominence by Bob Marley about the time of the civil unrest, in the 1970s. He died of brain cancer in May 1981, and there is now a museum dedicated to keeping his memory.
Kingston is also an ideal base for exploring the dramatic Blue Mountains, a spine of peaks rising to 7,400 feet, which are famous for their strong coffee and beautiful hiking trails.
Our city tour included these treasures:
Devon House, the restored 19th-century estate of one of Jamaica's first black millionaires, with a great house (or mansion), a little mall of handicraft stores, and a lovely shaded terrace cafe that proved perfect for a lunch break.
The National Art Gallery, which has masterpieces dating from the 17th century but is most wonderful for the vibrant paintings and expressive sculptures of contemporary Jamaican artists.
The Kingston Crafts Market, the country's most complete collection of hand-made arts and crafts.
Port Royal, a spit of land jutting south from Kingston's international airport. The most important port in the New World and the stronghold of 17th-century buccaneers, Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent tidal wave in 1692; one-third of the city sank and thousands were killed. Much of the underwater ruins have been excavated, and visitors can tour the remains of massive Fort Charles, whose exhibition rooms tell the story of Spanish and English intrigues.
Judi Dash is a free-lance writer living in New Jersey.
IF YOU GO
Visitors planning a multiday visit to Kingston can hook up with a guide through their hotel or by contacting the Jamaican Tourist Board's Kingston headquarters: 21 Dominica Drive; from the U.S., phone (809) 929-9200.
Two of the most reliable tour companies are: The Jamaica Union of Travellers Association, which runs all the licensed taxis in the country; 85 Knutsford Boulevard, (809)-926-1537; and Grace Tours, Kingsport Building, 3rd Street, Newport West, (809)-923-5161.
The tourist board also can set up a get-together with a local resident through the country's Meet the People program _ an even better way of getting a sense of the city, with perhaps a quick tour thrown in.
One final caution, for shutterbugs: While most Jamaicans are happy to pose for photographs, there are an increasing number who strongly resent being "shot" without being asked. Some people expect to be paid; others simply don't want their pictures taken. Ask first, preferably after spending some time talking to the people.
Editor's note: The Carry-ons Package will return next week.