Jamaica protests disrupt air, land and cruise travel

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NEW YORK -- Jamaica's tourism industry took a beating following a week of island-wide protests over a government plan to raise gas prices and hike taxes.

The violence left at least six people dead, police said. The protesters traded gunfire with police in Montego Bay and Kingston, looted businesses in Montego Bay and barricaded roads throughout the island.

As a result of the demonstrations, airlines scratched flights, cruise lines altered itineraries and ground tour operators suspended some of their activities. Travel agents who sell Jamaica said the strife was leading to cancellations, with hotels and airlines refusing to budge on their cancelation penalties.

"I have a family of three that canceled, but they're being held to severe penalties by Air Jamaica and Beaches [Negril]," said Diane Forlenza, owner of Rainbow Travel in Chester, N.J. Forlenza said Air Jamaica is imposing a $125 fee per person, while Beaches Negril is charging a $400 penalty.

The demonstrations, which protested a proposed 30% spike in gas prices and a 30% rise in the cost of licensing vehicles, prompted four major airlines to suspend some flights. American Airlines had canceled its daily flights from Miami and New York (Kennedy) to Kingston and one of two daily flights from Miami to Montego Bay through April 23. In addition, Air Jamaica canceled a number of its late night flights from Kingston to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, British Airways canceled one of four scheduled departures from London to Kingston and Air Canada canceled two flights from Toronto to Kingston and Montego Bay.

Late last week, Jamaica's prime minister, P.J. Patterson, said the government was willing to reconsider a partial rollback of the price hikes. "The gas tax will be a joke compared to the money we are going to lose in tourism," Gordon "Butch" Stewart, chairman of Sandals Resorts and Air Jamaica, told the Associated Press.

With the majority of its drivers unable to get through roadblocks and with many gas stations closed, the Ground Tour Operators Association stopped transporting tourists from hotels to popular attractions throughout the island, although some tours resumed late last week.

Cancelations were reported by hotels around the island, but mainly in Kingston, where a curfew was in effect.

Carole Fullerton, director of sales for the Crowne Plaza in Kingston, said a group of 17 business travelers from the U.S. scheduled to arrive on April 20 canceled because of the unrest.

Claudette Kenlock, director of sales and marketing for Kingston's Hilton Hotel, said the hotel was getting from 10 to 15 cancelations a day.

Jamaica's cruise industry also was affected.

A spokesman for Royal Caribbean International said its Majesty of the Seas, slated to call at Ocho Rios on Wednesday, April 21, instead spent the day at sea.

Carnival Cruise Lines diverted its Celebration from the ship's scheduled call at Montego Bay on April 21, and rerouted the ship to Grand Cayman. To make up the missed call, the vessel was slated to spend a day at Playa del Carmen, a spokeswoman said.

The U.S. State Department issued an announcement on April 20 warning of the demonstrations. By April 22, the Jamaica Tourist Board and hoteliers on the island's north coast resort areas were reporting that business was returning to normal. "The situation basically is completely back to normal, and there is calm in the resort areas," said Josef Forstmayr, managing director of Round Hill Hotel and Villas in Montego Bay.

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