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Profitable tides of surf-loving tourists return to Jamaica

It is not easy to win back the fickle tourist once he's had a bad time at your beaches, hotels, or other tourist attractions. But that is what Jamaica has done in the past two years.

After staggering declines in tourism during the 1970s and through much of 1980, tourists are again flocking to this sunny Caribbean island - and in record numbers.

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In 1982, so many tourists came here and spent dollars that tourism could overtake the recession-hit bauxite industry as Jamaica's No. 1 money earner this year.

Tourism earned more than $350 million for Jamaica in 1982, and the hope for 1983 is that the tally will be at least as high. Some tourist officials here even talk of a $500 million windfall from tourism this year or next.

Whatever the 1983 tally ultimately proves to be, the current winter season is a bountiful one for tourism. Airlines have put on extra flights; hotels are jammed to capacity. There is this winter a liberal sprinkling of Europeans among the visitors, although they come mainly from the United States and Canada.

Tourism has long been an essential part of the Jamaican economy. But as the two-year-old government of Prime Minister Edward Seaga scrambles to bring Jamaica back from the near-bankruptcy it inherited in late 1980, tourism takes on an increasing importance.

The current winter-season flow is obviously pleasing to Mr. Seaga who, in the course of an interview at Jamaica House in Kingston, the capital, went out of his way to single out tourism as an essential ingredient in his program of recovery for the island. ''Tourism,'' he says, ''has been restored from its lowest ebb.''

That low ebb saw a number of winter seasons, the height of the tourist flow, in which many hotels were virtually empty and some were closed. At the same time , airlines cut back on flights as much as 60 percent, and some even stopped serving the island. Dollar earnings from tourism fell below $100 million a year. Those tourists who came often complained bitterly about service, foul-ups in reservations, and similar problems. The repeat visitor, upon whom Jamaica traditionally counted, did not come back.

Then, too, there was the problem of violence - largely in Kingston on the southern side of the island, where scores died in a variety of incidents in the slum areas of the city. The violence, political in nature, didn't reach to Jamaica's north coast, where the tourist industry is largely concentrated.

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But news of the violence in Kingston was widely reported, and it scared tourists away. It was hard for them to distinguish between the north and south of the island, between the more tranquil northern coast and the more turbulent southern coast.

The result was that during this period in the late '70s, Jamaica got very bad press in the US. This galled many Jamaicans, who often railed bitterly about negative reporting, accusing US newspapers of trying to destabilize the government of Prime Minister Michael Manley and keep the tourists away.

The foreign press replied that it was merely doing its job of reporting the news, and that frequent stories of poor service and other problems encountered by tourists were equally responsible for the tourist decline.

Whatever the reason for the drop-off, there can be no doubt that the Seaga government inherited a weak tourist industry when it came to office in November 1980.

But things are different now.

This past year, nearly 675,000 tourists came to Jamaica, up from a low of 430 ,000 in the late '70s, and there is a projection of 800,000 arrivals for 1983. The hotels are all open, many refurbished, and several new hotels are under construction.

The Seaga government gets much of the credit for this turnaround. Its campaign to restore tourism to its former role in the economy includes an active tourism-promotion effort. Its current $6 million promotion budget includes aggressive marketing abroad and the fostering of friendliness at home.

Actually Jamaicans are a friendly people. But many visitors in the '70s complained that they were a ''surly people,'' as one travel agent here said. Complaints about no soap in hotel bathrooms were commonplace. Tourists would ask for butter and get margarine.

Now this is changing. The Jamaican slogan to tourists today is ''no problem.'' These words are printed on T-shirts worn by many Jamaicans in tourist areas, and they sum up the island's determination to lure back the tourist and attract many new ones.

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