Montego Bay. Ocho Rios. Negril. Falmouth. Most visitors to Jamaica are familiar with the island’s main tourism districts, but there is one destination that’s been glaringly absent from most Jamaican travel itineraries for the past half-century: the capital city of Kingston.
That may be about to change in a big way.
Jamaica is a relatively small island nation of about three million people, yet thanks to
Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, Usain Bolt, and many others, billions of people around the world are familiar with Jamaican culture.
Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica, is the unquestioned cultural heart of Jamaica.
Yet relatively few visitors to Jamaica spend time in Kingston, which has battled the disadvantages of being far from the island’s popular beach destinations and also a reputation for crime and gang-related violence.
A far different vision of Kingston is emerging, however, fueled by increased visitation to the city by cruise ships and a drive to empower the vibrant local creative community by creating a new arts district that would occupy the heart of Kingston’s downtown waterfront area.
“We are expanding our tourism offerings beyond the north and west coasts of Jamaica,” 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 get so many experiences.”
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 just intended to transport visitors arriving at Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport to the beaches, but to encourage visitors to come see Kingston, as well.
“We’re having a long-term conversation about Jamaica’s economic development,” said Andrea Dempster Chung, cofounder and executive director at Kingston Creative, a nonprofit arts organization with the mission of using arts and culture to achieve social and economic transformation in Jamaica.
“When you look at the creative economy around the world, that’s something we [in Jamaica] are very good and have a natural advantage in,” she said, pointing to the country’s vibrant performing and visual arts community. “We need 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 that downtown Kingston “has always been a hub for creativity.” To some extent, Kingston already is better positioned now than it has been in decades. The Port Royal Cruise Terminal, which began receiving cruise ships in 2020, deposit visitors at the location of the most notorious pirate city in the Caribbean. Likewise, travelers arriving at the Kingston airport are less than a 15 minute drive to Port Royal.
Destroyed by an earthquake in 1692, Port Royal’s ruins can be seen both on land and under water within walking distance of the cruise pier, which in turn is just across Kingston Harbour from the capital city itself. The Port Royal Museum, which will house artifacts from the sunken city and tell the story of its rise and fall, is scheduled to open later in 2022 at the cruise terminal.
Downtown, a series of murals along Fleet Street provide a welcoming vista, with walls and buildings in the Parade Gardens area now adored with works of art by painters from all over 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 in the city.
Orange Street, a.k.a. “Beat Street,” is destined to be one of the hubs of Kingston’s downtown arts district; once home to Sir Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One Records and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Prince Buster’s Record Shack, Beat Street is anchored by the Rockers International record store. “The plan is to make that street a journey to reggae music,” says Wallace.
A recent proliferation of AirbnB properties has opened up access to some of the communities made famous by the lyrics of reggae songs, like Trenchtown, where visitors can hear local music and connect with residents at the Trenchtown Culture Yard. Trenchtown’s Reggae Hostel not only offers inexpensive lodging, but Jamaican dance lessons, too.
For visitors seeking more traditional lodging, Kingston is home to several tourist-friendly hotels, including the AC Marriott (a partnership between Sandals and Marriott), the Spanish Court Hotel, the R Hotel Kingston, the Jamaica Pegasus, the Courtleigh Hotel, and — in the nearby Blue Mountains and overlooking the city, the elegant Strawberry Hill.
Another new hotel on the waterfront downtown just opened: Hilton’s first-ever Tapestry Collection hotel in the Caribbean, the “ROK.”
Kingston isn’t entirely undiscovered: backpackers and younger, more adventurous tourists already come to the city to stay in hostels downtown and dancing 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.
The city also is home to Emancipation Park, highlighted by Jamaican artist Laura Facey’s statue celebrating Jamaicans’ victory over slavery, and the 2,000-acre Hope Gardens, the largest botanical gardens in the English-speaking Caribbean. Devon House, a Kingston mansion was then built by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire, is undergoing a multimillion dollar transformation that will see the elegant home’s vast courtyard used for food, music, and cultural events, says Wallace — an important addition to a city that sometimes comes up short in terms of event venues.
Kingston also is surrounded by the Blue Mountains: the lush peaks, famous for coffee cultivation, are only a half-hour drive from downtown. And visiting Kingston doesn’t mean forgoing the beach: Hellshire Beach, about 15 minutes outside of town, is known for its surf shacks selling local escovitch fish.
The Bob Marley Museum is just the beginning of Kingston’s outsized musical heritage: there’s a separate museum just down the street honoring fellow reggae legend Peter Tosh, for example, and fresh new music is still being produced at Big Yard Music Studios. The Alpha Institute, considering the birthplace of ska music, continues its mission of educating young Jamaican musicians.
The Kingston Art District has not yet been officially designated, and other aspects of the city’s redevelopment into a more visitor-friendly destination are still in progress.
But Chung envisions a future where buses and ferries take visitors from the cruise port and airport into downtown Kingston to explore the city, rather than just having them linger for a few hours at the cruise port or take a taxi right to a beach resort.
“We have more traction and movement than we’ve seen in years to revitalize the old city of Kingston,” says Chung. “Authenticity is super important, and this is not a manufactured art district. It has always been there, but it’s a very fragile ecosystem that gentrification would destroy. We need people to stay in their communities and keep producing this culture.”
Allowing local people to thrive in the downtown arts district would keep them invested in the tourist experience, argues Chung, turning skeptics wary of the scanty benefits offered by past tourism investments into supporters of community based tourism.
“New opportunities for economic growth are also a crime-reducer,” Chung says, addressing what is probably the top deterrent to greater visitation in Kingston.
Adds Wallace: “Technology has allowed for more tourism entrepreneurship,” such as starting an AirBnB. “Whereas before tourism was soon as in the hands of a few well-heeled people, it’s now seen as something that anybody can benefit from,” he says.