Ocho Rios then and now – From quiet fishing village to leading tourist destination

Ocho Rios, today, is Jamaica’s and the Caribbean’s leading cruise ship port and a leading stop-over destination for tourists.

The name Ocho Rios, which is of Spanish origin, translates to Eight Rivers in English and came from a time when the Spanish occupied Jamaica, before being driven off by the English in the mid-1650s.

Fast forward 300 years and by then American bauxite company, Reynolds, had built a pier at the western end of the town to ship alumina to the United States.

For the next three decades, bauxite remained an important money earner not just for Ocho Rios and the parish of St Ann but Jamaica as well.

When Reynolds closed operations in the 1980s it meant a big blow for the economy of the town, which was then forced to rely solely on the tourism sector which, over the years, had been seen as a secondary foreign exchange earner.

While the two sectors, tourism and mining, meant employment for the masses, the skill of fishing which had preceded both and had characterised how Jamaica and the world saw Ocho Rios in the early years, continued as the main source of livelihood for lots of families.

But Ocho Rios, blessed as it is with natural beauty, was seen by many as potentially a top tourist destination. As a result, investments in the tourism product for the town picked up momentum.

The Urban Development Corporation (UDC) through its agency, St Ann Development Company (SADCo), which was established in the 1960s, played a major role in getting the town ready for the development of tourism that was to come in the following decades. Beach land was reclaimed and developed, the harbour dredged and the area zoned for development of hotels and resort apartments.

Hotels that were built decades earlier, such as Jamaica Inn, Silver Seas, Shaw Park and Plantation Inn, among others, were joined by newer properties that improved the tourism landscape.

Some larger properties such as Mallards Beach and Americana (that later merged to form Jamaica Grande and known as of 2016 as Moon Palace Jamaica Grande), meant more tourists to the town.

Local hotel brands such as Sandals, SuperClubs and the pioneering Couples played a pivotal role in helping Ocho Rios attain and maintain worldwide appeal as a tourist destination.

Other smaller properties such as Pineapple Court, Hermosa Cove, Village, Mystic Ridge, Fisherman’s Point, Sand Castles, Rooms, among others, also helped to boost Ocho Rios as a premier tourist destination.

One major development that also played a significant part in catapulting Ocho Rios to the top as a destination was the opening of the Ocho Rios cruise ship pier in the early 1980s.

It meant cruise ships with thousands of passengers could visit the town on a regular basis. It meant too, that there had to be something to attract them, so much more attention was paid to the attractions that were available and new ones developed.

Ocho Rios’ premier attraction, Dunn’s River, had by then garnered world wide appeal and its popularity grew even further with the opening of the pier, as tourists began descending on the attraction in droves.

New attractions such as Dolphin Cove and Mystic Mountain were to come on stream in the ensuing years.

Shopping also developed with several shopping centres catering to the in-bond shopping needs of tourists being built. Today, Ocho Rios boasts plazas such as Soni’s, Taj Mahal, Harbour Shops and Island Village that cater almost exclusively to tourists.

The craft industry, the transportation and banking sectors, farmers and the remaining fisher folks, too, also began benefiting directly from the boost in tourism in Ocho Rios.

The boom also brought in international brands. Of significance, Burger King opened its first restaurant in Jamaica in Ocho Rios in 1985. KFC and Pizza Hut are also in Ocho Rios.

With development came congestion and this forced the government, after lobbying by the St Ann Chamber of Commerce, to build a bypass road for Ocho Rios, which was built in the mid to late 1990s.

Over the past two decades, Ocho Rios has seen significant development that has completely removed the “quiet fishing village” tag to a more appropriate label of leading tourist destination.

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Elizabeth Flowers