Business operators in Treasure Beach hoping for better days

TREASURE BEACH, St Elizabeth – Bartender Saphia Silva thought long and hard when asked how business had been going since bars reopened on May 19, following a lockdown in March caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The most customers I have had since we reopened up were four,” Silva finally told the Jamaica Observer crew during a recent visit to the airy, attractively appointed bar at Treasure Beach Inn.

“Before [the lockdown of the tourist sector and the closure of bars and other places of entertainment] we had a lot of tourists; they were walking up and down…a few of them still around [stranded because of inability to get on outbound flights], but they are running out of money…So, it’s kind of hard for everybody,” said Silva.

It’s a tale repeated by small business operators at every turn in Treasure Beach, in south St Elizabeth – a combination of several quaint fishing and farming communities which has evolved to become the vanguard of community tourism in Jamaica over the last 30 years.

A few minutes’ drive away, another bartender Elsorine “Nanny” Stewart, who doubles as vegetable farmer, said that in addition to the collapse of tourism, business was particularly “rough” because of the constraints on opening hours.

“Remember we can’t open till 11 and by eight o’clock you haffi lock,” she said. Thankfully, said Stewart, construction “here and there” means there is some employment, which has triggered limited economic activity.

A smiling Stewart voiced hope that her farming will provide a boost as the hotel sector gradually reopens in the months ahead. The Government has said that tourists will start returning on a phased basis tomorrow (June 15) – restricted to a narrow beachside “corridor” extending from Negril in the west, along the north coast, to Portland in the east.

It’s expected that tourism reopening will be extended to other areas, including Treasure Beach, in coming weeks.

“Mi just plant out honeydew [melons] and cantaloupe,” said Stewart, showing off cellphone pictures of her farm project as she spoke.

A short distance away, at his roadside shop, fruit and juice vendor Herman Moxam explained to the Sunday Observer that he had only opened his establishment to accept goods from a wholesaler, not because of any expectation of selling anything.

That’s an entirely different story from the period before the pandemic struck when numerous visitors roamed Treasure Beach and neighbouring south St Elizabeth communities on a daily basis.

“When tourists are here I sell everything,” said Moxam. “I make green [vegetable] juice, fruit juices. They like my juice and I don’t put additives unless they ask for maybe ginger, or tumeric,” he said.

Like Stewart, Moxam also farms but says he was hit hard in that endeavour as well, after the hotels closed.

“I had a crop of cantaloupe and never get it sell…most of it spoil in the field,” he said.

He explained that he was unable to offload his cantaloupes because, like honeydew melons, most Jamaicans were unused to the particular variety of cantaloupe which he had planted specifically for the visitor market.

The one good thing, according to him, was that some people will gradually acquire the taste, having got the fruit for free.

“I give away couple to my friends and they come back asking for more,” he said with a laugh.

Like others in Treasure Beach, Moxam keeps an eye on the news and is buoyed by plans for the gradual reopening of the tourism sector soon, even though he believes recovery is likely to be extremely slow.

That prediction seems certain to hold true.

Right across the road from the Treasure Beach Inn and Bar is the Treasure Beach Hotel, said to be the oldest such accommodation in the area. When the Sunday Observer crew entered the compound, with its tall, old trees and twittering birds, there appeared to be a total absence of people – that was until a caretaker turned up.

He had received no word, he said, when asked about plans for reopening.

Contacted by telephone, Jennifer Brotherton of the Treasure Beach Hotel said the hotel management was “waiting to see what happens” and awaiting guidance from the Government.

“For right now we are concentrating on maintaining the physical property,” she said.

At the Jakes Hotel, manager of the family owned business, Jason Henzell described the long break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as his biggest challenge ever .

“I have never been tested like this in my life,” said Henzell. “We have passed through hurricanes – several of them – we have passed through external factors like 9/11, there has been the stigma of crime in Jamaica…like ‘Dudus’ stand-off [of a decade ago]…all of those very challenging, but nothing like this.”

He is now hopeful that the Government’s timelines will coincide with his plans for reopening Jakes and the neighbouring Jack Sprat Restaurant on July 15, a full month after tomorrow’s start of a phased reopening in Negril and on the country’s north coast corridor.

“We are happy that the country is opening back up but we believe it is going to take a few weeks for people to get into the protocols. It’s also going to take a few weeks for the airlines to have capacity to put on additional flights, and that is a critical component because you have a lot of the large hotels which use wholesalers that will pre-book blocks of seats on the flights. So, if you have five flights coming in there may only be five per cent, 10, 15 per cent of those seats available for the direct consumer, the independent traveller,” who come to south coast destinations like Treasure Beach, said Henzell.

“What happens with the large hotels is that the wholesaler will buy out [hundreds of rooms and airline seats], and they package it together and sell it. So, not because you see 10 flights coming in you believe that [people from those flights] going all over Jamaica…So we believe a month afterwards will give us a bit of time to get used to the protocols and for the flights to come back,” he added.

The extra time should also allow for “a certain level of anxiety in the air” to be quelled and for visitors and staff to “feel more comfortable” even as everyone comes to terms with COVID-19, said Henzell who is the representative for the South Coast Chapter of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA),

And at the neighbouring 14-room Sunset Resort, proprietor Kory South says he is focused on “playing things out one day at a time…”

He is eyeing a gradual return to business starting with “a bed and breakfast” operation on weekends, targeting Jamaicans and expatriates based in Kingston.

But, also before the start of the winter season in November-December, South says he will probably consider closing again for an expansion project that will involve “getting to 17, possibly 18 rooms” up from the current 14.

“Expansion is something we can do pretty fast,” he explained. In any case, he said, “A lot of our repeat guests wouldn’t actually care if we are doing some work about the place. Many don’t spend much of the day here, you know, they just come back to eat and sleep…

“But I don’t like having guests here and a bunch of noise [construction] going on…we praise ourselves as being peaceful and quiet,” he said.

He isn’t worried about occupancy when reopening time comes around. “I have people who want to come right now. They are looking at the 15th of June and thinking they might come. I tell them give it another 30 days to see what happens,” South said.

He recalled that he and other Treasure Beach hoteliers, as well as operators of villas, cottages etc, were doing roaring business when tourism collapsed in March, forcing closures and staff layoffs.

“It was very good right up to when we closed the doors. It was the middle of the season,” he said with a rueful laugh.

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