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Imperfections in paradise

I was visiting some time ago with a fellow travel journalist whose main expertise is the Caribbean.

"Which is your favorite island?" I asked her.

"Jamaica," she replied without hesitation.

I expressed mild surprise at her answer. "Don't you find some people there a tad aggressive toward tourists?" I asked.

"Oh, they don't bother me," she said. "I go only to the all-inclusive resorts and never leave until it's time to fly home."

How sad. Nothing against Sandals or Breezes or Couples or Hedonism II. (Dare I admit that many, many years ago I spent a week at Hedonism I?) These and other properties offer self-contained products enjoyed by many Houstonians. But if the sole purpose of our travels is to be chained figuratively to one resort, with no desire to explore beyond, why go all the way to Jamaica?

And yet that's the way an increasing number of travelers look at a country whose beauty and charm, so ripe for exploration, are too often hidden beneath the misguided actions of a few unruly residents.

Aggressive vendors

According to a survey by the Jamaican Tourist Board, 56 percent of visitors to the island last year said they were harassed during their stays. Of that number, 60 percent said they had been asked to buy drugs. Others complained about overtures from prostitutes. Thirteen percent said the incidents spoiled their trip.

Last time I paused for a few hours at Montego Bay, we were besieged by dozens of hawkers grabbing our arms, pushing and all but demanding that we invest our money in trinkets, hair-braiding or marijuana. And this was within 100 feet of a cruise ship.

Because many other passengers complained about similar treatment, only one ship made weekly calls in Montego Bay during this summer's off-season, down from three last year. Overall tourism there isn't approaching the growth rate of most other Caribbean islands.

The Jamaican government, keenly aware of the economic impact created by almost 2-million annual visitors, announced new, stiffer penalties earlier this year for residents who bother tourists.

Now, according to Cox News Service reporter Shelly Emling, the island's Chamber of Commerce is proposing a more controversial solution: legalized brothels and designated red-light districts.

"At least we'd get the prostitutes off the streets," Emling quotes Chamber president Howard Hamilton.

Lasting impression

Based on my forays into the Caribbean during the past few years, I fear Jamaica may not be the only island that needs to take a long look at itself. And I say that with great regret, because I have long been enthralled by the region's beaches, its natural wonders, its shopping and cuisine, and especially its people.

I looked forward for some time to visiting St. Lucia, an island highly recommended by friends. And I suspect that if I spent a week there, I would be impressed. But with scant hours to spare on a rainy afternoon this summer in Castries, St. Lucia's main cruise port, I could barely take a step without being accosted. If I didn't slip my hand into my pocket to procure a coin or two, I was verbally harassed about my skinflint nature, my ancestry or _ yes, the truth can hurt _ my weight.

It was not the kind of first impression tourism officials prefer. And a port city often provides the initial _ or only _ impression for visitors to any island.

I've had similar experiences recently on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

Let me stress these points:

One: Most Caribbean islands don't tolerate rude heckling and physical harassment. On Aruba, Anguilla and in the Cayman Islands, I've found residents almost unfailingly polite. The reality, though, is that many travelers categorize widely diverse islands _ despite their different languages, heritages and cultures _ into one huge entity: the Caribbean.

Two: I am not by nature an intolerant person. Nor am I easily bothered. I understand and appreciate that people on these islands _ and in much of our world _ are much less fortunate than I am. I understand the motivation for their actions. I understand that the money tourists spend for hair-braiding and trinkets and, unfortunately, for drugs and sex helps islanders feed their children and put clothes on their backs.

But my strong feeling is that the islands of the Caribbean are so beautiful, so special, that those encouraged to clean up their act will attract more visitors. Bring more money to the tourist industry. And ultimately feed and clothe more children. Instead of establishing red-light districts, the real solution _ as in most aspects of life _ is education.

Otherwise, as reporter Emling quotes Jamaican prime minister P.J. Patterson: Persistent heckling threatens to "kill the goose that lays the golden egg."

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