Month: July 2015

Arduous trek

I just got back from what might have been my most exhausting journey ever in ten years of wandering the globe. It began just after midnight on Wednesday in Kingston, heading to the airport for a 4am flight. But upon arrival, the plane developed a mechanical fault, leading to a two-hour delay. The thought of a faulty plane doesn’t fill me with confidence at the best of times, but at that time of the morning it felt especially discouraging.

Overnighting in Norman Manley airport was on the cards, for me and a whole bunch of other irritated travellers. When we finally boarded the plane, at 6am, things were looking up. There was free wifi onboard and it actually worked! I spent the flight catching up on emails and drafting a new op-ed for the Jamaica Gleaner. I also experienced the joy of posting updates to Facebook from 35,000 feet. After we reached New York, there was a looong layover to endure in JFK, an unpleasant and sprawling airport with overpriced sandwiches and icy air-con.

On attempting to catch the next flight to Istanbul, I found myself the lucky recipient of a random ‘enhanced security check’, courtesy of America’s notorious TSA. The check-in people scrawled ‘SSSS’ on my boarding pass. Welcome to America! The security check was by far the most thorough I’d ever experienced. The guy dug through my entire suitcase, including my stinky laundry. He even unearthed a dead cockroach that had somehow snuck in during six grimy days in Port Antonio. Then I was passed over to a female officer who gave me an extensive pat-down. At least the TSA does its job properly, which I suppose is encouraging in these uncertain times.

Finally boarding the plane, I found that my usual window seat (that I usually insist on for calming purposes) was next to a restless child with a loud game-playing device. Sleep was essential and so it was time to move. I decided to break the habit of many years and try an aisle seat elsewhere. Surprisingly, it was totally fine. I got at least four hours of decent sleep, played a few games of chess with willing opponents, and even found time for a documentary.

Ten hours later, Istanbul was greeting me with some searingly hot weather. It’s tricky to kick the brain into action and focus on work in this oppressive heat. But come Tuesday I’ll head to the UK for a couple of weeks of family time and quiet contemplation, tucked away in the heart of the leafy English countryside.


Into the hills

It was quite the come-down, from pampered five star living to a tin-roofed shack with no hot water.

But I was determined to see more of Jamaica than just the capital city. To get a more balanced picture of the place, I needed to venture outside Kingston and explore some of the countryside for myself.

Port Antonio is a seaside town situated in the parish of Portland on Jamaica’s north-eastern side. It’s a green and lush area of the country, with the highest levels of rainfall. Everyone I spoke to about it told me that I’d have a great time in Portland. They said it was the best area of Jamaica and had the most natural beauty and variety.

The town itself felt like a place where you might find pirates. It was vaguely shabby, yet buzzing. Colonial architecture was dotted here and there, among the usual array of low-roofed shops, cafes and bars. The Errol Flynn Marina was a striking reminder of the place’s pedigree in terms of celebrities, many of whom have gravitated here. Bond author Ian Fleming set up home in Jamaica and even has an airport named after him in Ocho Rios, just a little further on up the north coast.

In comparison to Kingston, Port Antonio felt much safer. However, it’s hard to define exactly why, and I’m unsure how much of this is a result of perceptions. But Jamaica does seem a different place outside the big city. Port Antonio is relaxed and laid back. People seem friendlier and more honest, away from the constant hustle of city life, with its struggle to survive.

I met an old lady one evening, while walking home in the dark. She appeared by my side and wished a polite ‘good evening’. We exchanged some brief chit chat. Then at the mention of Kingston she suddenly recoiled.

‘Don’t say that awful name to me!’ she said. I was taken aback by the vehemence with which she spoke. When pressed further, she replied that it was because the capital was ‘so dangerous’.

As an obvious foreigner, it harked back to that old China feeling of being the odd one out. There were very few white people in the town, although I did spot a number of tourists every so often. Luckily the years spent in China have helped me acclimatise somewhat to this feeling of being the ‘other’. Nevertheless, the local people of Port Antonio were very friendly. It was good to get to know some ordinary Jamaicans leading average lives, as a contrast to the more privileged elite folks who I met in Kingston.

More dark days

Thousands of miles away, Turkey is front-page news once again. In the border town of Suruç, a suicide bombing has killed a group of young activists. They had gathered at a cultural centre to discuss plans to rebuild nearby Kobane, the Syrian town destroyed by Isis earlier this year.

According to reports, the group was full of hopeful thoughts and optimistic ideas for the town’s rebirth. That optimism didn’t last for long. The bomber soon wiped it all away, along with at least 30 lives. Online there’s already a video. It shows music and chanting before the big life-changing bang, followed by screams and sirens after. Such tragedy.

Someone I know in Istanbul missed being there by a whisker, thanks to a delay in his visa application. Kismet, I suppose.

It’s still daytime in Jamaica. But as night falls over Turkey, no doubt the conspiracy theories will already be swirling. Twitter trolls and armchair activists will be clamouring with their so-called insights about whichever government is supposedly to blame.

Maybe there’s a way to implicate Israel. Or could it be Hamas? Perhaps Assad somehow did it, or the CIA, or even Turkey itself. After all, maybe Isis itself is just one big conspiracy theory. Sooner or later we’ll know more.

I get tired of trying to figure it all out. It’s utterly discouraging. I feel like disconnecting entirely, going away to hide in a small cave and giving up on reading news.

Spanish Town

Hustle and bustle in Spanish Town (© Samantha North 2015)

Armed soldiers lined the road as our car approached Spanish Town, the one-time capital of Jamaica. Their presence suggested that life here on a Saturday night, perhaps on any night, could easily spiral out of control. When we reached the commercial district it became clearer how that could happen.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the streets. They were wild, pulsating and full of energy. But at the same time you could feel an underlying tension, tightly wound, as if a single wrong move risked triggering something explosive. We drove through the packed and narrow streets, bathed in pink neon light and heaving with people.

Vehicles swerved, squealed and honked as they fought their way through the throngs. Soon ours emerged from the commercial tangle into a central square where cops waited in the middle of the road, alert to any sign of trouble flaring up. We didn’t stop but kept going. Finally the garish streets gave way to dimly lit highway, with large dark buildings behind barbed wire fences lining the sides.

This city has a long history. It was once Jamaica’s largest, founded by the Spanish back in the sixteenth century when they presided over the island. Known back then as Villa de la Vega, the city was the Spanish capital until 1655, when the British arrived and forcibly took it away. They renamed it Spanish Town and it remained the Jamaican capital until 1872.

Full of history and culture, Spanish Town could be an intriguing destination to explore. But perceptions of violence and unrest, many of which appear to be true, discourage many people from discovering it in detail. There is an unusual mix of Spanish and British colonial architecture, cathedrals, chapels and even a mosque. The city’s famous cast iron bridge, built in 1801, has come close to gaining UNESCO World Heritage status. But so far, high levels of violence have held back the restoration project and denied the site this accolade, according to a 2010 article in the Jamaica Observer.

You win some, you lose some. Just weeks ago, Jamaica’s Blue Mountains were designated a World Heritage attraction, thanks to their ‘extraordinary cultural and historic value’.

Island of contradictions

Before I visited it for the first time, Jamaica brought to mind visions of white beaches, of fun loving people, of marijuana and Red Stripe beer, and the famous figures of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt.

Not everyone will be fortunate enough to see Jamaica, or any country, close up before forming opinions about it. Instead, as people generally do, they’ll rely on a set of preconceived ideas when deciding whether to engage with the country, whether that’s as tourists, investors, foreign talent or potential students. The task of nation branding is to make sure those Jamaica stereotypes are promoting the right message in people’s minds; the message that we can control as part of ‘Brand Jamaica’.

But the negative side mustn’t be swept under the carpet. There are many problems still to be overcome. If Jamaica wants to improve the negative side of its image, it needs to find lasting ways of tackling crime, corruption and intolerance. Clearly, the government needs to be committed to the mission. But, equally importantly, so do the people.

In a 2014 academic article, Dr Hume Johnson talked about Jamaica’s ‘famous, strong but damaged brand’ and discussed the urgent need to reimagine Brand Jamaica.

As Dr Johnson points out, there are some major challenges facing Brand Jamaica. That’s partly why we’re all gathered here today. The first, and most serious, is crime. This is a major social problem and is the number one cause of concern for most citizens.

The crime issue has also led to wider global perceptions of Jamaica as a ‘dangerous’ place to visit. Clearly, this problem needs to be addressed urgently.

Perceptions of Jamaica as dangerous discourage tourists from visiting, put off potential inward investors, and lowers the country’s overall standing in the eyes of the world. Of course, many nations have crime problems, and the USA and UK are no exception. But these nations are much larger, more politically powerful, and their brands are already far stronger, more deeply developed over time, with lots of different strands. This means that a negative issue such as crime doesn’t necessarily overshadow the rest of their brand image.

Another problem is that wider perceptions of Jamaica as ‘dangerous’ are completely contrary to its projected image as a nation where you can come and ‘be alright’. This inconsistency causes confusion and dilutes Jamaica’s brand identity. Crime can no longer be ignored, as if it’s unrelated to Jamaica’s image.

On the contrary, it’s a fundamental part of the brand, and affects it from all angles. Building a firm foundation by tackling crime head-on should be the starting point for reimagining Brand Jamaica.

The case of New York is a good example here. In the 1970s the city had a very negative reputation for crime and corruption. But during the next decades, especially thanks to mayor Bloomberg’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to crime, the city was completely transformed. Although it still has a certain amount of crime, as does any major city, New York has now thrown off its former bad reputation to become one of the world’s premier cities.

Human rights are another important issue for Jamaica, especially the perceptions of Jamaica’s well-known stance against homosexuality. The global media has picked up on this on many occasions, publishing headlines such as ‘The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?’ (Time magazine 2006). Anti-gay sentiment appears in every level of society, from political leadership to the lyrics of popular reggae and dancehall music.

Perceptions of Jamaica as intolerant are very damaging to its brand, especially in the eyes of tourists, investors and foreign talent. It’s hard to change ingrained social attitudes, and developing overnight tolerance is of course impossible. But Jamaica’s international image would certainly improve if efforts were made, at the very least, to take a serious stand against incidents of anti-gay violence. The government should be leading the way on this. Grass-roots initiatives can be useful too, but they’re not likely to go very far without commitment from the top levels.

The recent US gay marriage decision makes this change even more crucial. I realise that not all countries can be expected to have exactly the same attitudes, but this decision from the world’s most powerful nation does set a new standard. If Jamaica stays stuck on its strong anti-gay stance, Brand Jamaica may well struggle to gain the level of respect that it aims for and deserves.

While reading the Vision 2030 for Jamaica I immediately noticed how it put people in first place for leading the way in developing new goals. I very much agree with this way of thinking. I believe that successful nation brand strategy starts with all the people who live in a country. They’re the most important stakeholders.

So now let’s look at some ways to help with the process of reimagining Brand Jamaica. The first thing needed is to develop a clear brand strategy. This doesn’t mean a marketing campaign. It’s more like a long-term road map that defines the Brand Jamaica goals and provides clear steps for how to reach them.

Defining the strategy takes time, and it’s not something to be rushed. The government has the responsibility to lead the strategy, but all sectors of society must have an input, as this is the only way to make them feel engaged.

The process must include representatives from government, local business people, educators, religious leaders, sportspeople, media, and various citizen groups, as well as ordinary Jamaicans. This part of the process is often where strategists from outside can be most useful by bringing in an important outsiders’ perspective.

The Jamaican government has a critical role to play in changing and updating various elements of policy in order to improve Jamaica. Good governance is critical in this respect and future policy amendments should always be made in line with the pre-defined ‘Brand Jamaica’ strategy.

The government is responsible for major changes such as improving infrastructure, boosting the economy, getting more Jamaicans into education, reducing unemployment and strengthening the rule of law. This is extremely important to help Jamaica develop a strong foundation for building its new brand upon. I think Vision 2030 has got a lot of strong points. It recognises the need for a long-term focus and a people-first approach that empowers Jamaicans, along with a set of solid national outcomes.

Once building this foundation gets underway, we can then focus on what makes Jamaica unique. As we all know, Jamaica has a lot of powerful and potent associations. We should hold onto all these as they’re Jamaica’s unique selling points.

Beyond the somewhat frivolous sun, sea and ‘feel alright’ image, it’s also important to introduce a more serious side to the nation brand. As the Vision Statement says: “Jamaica, a place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.”

No country can avoid dealing with public relations. As well as walking the walk, Jamaica also needs to talk the talk. It’s got to let the rest of the world know about its positive progress and promote its brand assets. At the same time, successful PR efforts must ring true. So Jamaica must stay genuine and honestly admit its weaknesses when necessary. It mustn’t try to hide them.

An organised approach is needed to manage all Jamaica-related PR messages in a way that fits with the goals of the new Brand Jamaica strategy. This strategy must be kept in mind all the time, in everything Jamaica does and says.

To develop its brand beyond the current stereotypical and frivolous image, Jamaica should plan a series of symbolic long-term actions to promote its less recognised assets. Jamaica’s lucky because it’s got plenty of assets to choose from. Jamaican history and culture are very strong, and so are its arts, music and sport.

Local entrepreneurship should be also encouraged and promoted, by developing further initiatives to support and mentor local businesspeople, and getting some of their success stories into the international media. Sport is another key area for Jamaica to focus on, as the country is already world famous and well respected for its sporting achievements, especially with the outstanding achievements of track star Usain Bolt.

Jamaica also exports some world-famous products, including Red Stripe beer, Blue Mountain coffee, rum and items featuring its iconic flag and national colours. Being associated with certain products can also help boost a nation brand and shape it in a certain way, as in the case of ‘Made in Italy’ associated with elegance, ‘Made in Germany’ with quality and reliability, or ‘Made in China’ with mass-produced items at low prices.

Having a range of consistently branded ‘Made in Jamaica’ exports can help spread the ‘country of origin’ effect around the world, and build people’s subconscious and emotional associations with Brand Jamaica.

Finally, the reimagining of Brand Jamaica mustn’t forget its most important and central driving force – the Jamaican people! They should be placed front and centre in all nation brand efforts, whether they’re actively helping to devise the new brand direction, participating as brand ambassadors, or simply sharing their stories of Jamaica with the world via social media, traditional media, or word of mouth.