It was over 16 years ago that I visited Jamaica for the first time. I have seen firsthand how Jamaica and Mobay, in particular, have emerged from the dark shadows of a third world country. These changes didn’t happen overnight. In fact, most of them have occurred in the last five or six years. Jamaica would still not qualify for first world status but the inroads the country has made is definitely in that direction.
For any tourists who vacationed outside of Montego Bay in the early nineties, the bus ride to the resort could take 2 hours or more over narrow winding roads through every town and village along the way. The first major change I noticed, especially on the approach to Sangster National Airport, was the early construction of Highway 2000 from Negril to Mobay. From the best of my recollection the road was completed around 2002. In those days this highway was thought to be state of the art in highway design. The two lanes were much wider than the original road with an ample shoulder to accommodate the all too frequent breakdowns and pit stops. I think the biggest improvement was straightening the road. All this helped to open up the major resort town of Negril. It is still about an hours ride but certainly much more enjoyable. The tourist now has the opportunity to see and appreciate the beauty of the island with great views of the ocean all along the way. The only negative aspect I can think of is with the road straighter and wider, drivers tend to speed and ignore no passing zones. The speed limit varies from 50 KPH to 80 KPH on the open road but most people seem to think it is miles per hour not kilometers per hour! For example, 80 KPH is equal to 50 MPH. Very few pay heed to these limits thus endangering everyone else.
Several years after the completion of the Negril leg of the highway, construction began on the Ocho Rios section. Once again the road was straightened and this time bypassed Falmouth, the Trelawny capital. The sightseeing traveling east is even more spectacular and historical than that to Negril. The closer you get to Ocho Rios the more spectacular the view. Mountains line one side of the road and breathtaking views of the ocean are on the other side. Two of the historical sites along the way include Rose Hall, home of the famed white witch Annie Hall, and Columbus Park in Discovery Bay where Columbus landed in 1494.
Progress on this second leg of Highway 2000 seemed to take forever. Construction did not start in Mobay and end in Ocho Rios. There were several sections started at one time each scattered along the 103 kilometer route which made the long trip even longer. I can remember one such drive to Sandals Ocho Rios where upon arrival my car was so coated with mud that not one painted surface could be seen. What a mess! Today this leg of the highway is more up to date than the Negril section. This road has four lanes most of the way with traffic lights, street lights in some areas, and in-pavement reflectors in much of the unlighted areas.
The last part of the construction took place in Montego Bay. At one time Howard Cooke Boulevard, the main road through the city, was 2 lanes wide with several round a bouts, (rotaries), which caused traffic to be at a snail’s pace just about any time of day. Now it is four lanes with traffic lights replacing the round a bouts which allows traffic to move much smoother. Shopping in Mobay back in the 90’s was primarily restricted to the downtown areas with only a few shopping plazas on the outskirts of the city. The stores in the city were mostly one or two story buildings lined along the downtown streets. Many of the owners would live on the second floor perhaps to keep an eye on their livelihood downstairs. One of the most popular shopping areas is the Baywest Shopping Center which is located adjacent to the highway and close to Sam Sharpe Square. This is a three story building with a car park underneath which is home to a variety of retail shops, a bank, and several doctors’ offices. This is one of only two buildings downtown with an elevator. The streets of Mobay are lined with stores and shops of all types, such as a haberdashery. What sets these haberdasheries apart from department type stores is the customers do not wander up and down the aisles to compare one product with another. The depth of the store the shopper is allowed into is around 10 – 12 feet. At this point here is a large counter/display case with wire fencing to the ceiling to keep the unauthorized at bay. What I have just described above is still in place today. This was fine then because not many people had automobiles. But that was then and this is now. Shopping centers have sprung up in a few areas on the outskirts of the city, two of which are Fairview Shopping Center and Whittier Village.
Fairview Shopping Center is about 2 kilometers west of Sam Sharpe Square, the center of Montego Bay. It was initially comprised of a large supermarket, KFC, a six screen movie theater complex, a large pharmacy/gift store, and a couple of smaller specialty stores. Sometime later, a True Value hardware store was built with a Chinese restaurant at one end. Then a few years ago a bank and a furniture store were built near the movie complex.
Over the past year or so the adjacent land has been and is still being developed into a major shopping and office park. Included in this vast acreage are several insurance companies, a bank, all of the major telecommunication companies, several restaurants including a Wendy’s and Domino’s Pizza, and numerous other miscellaneous stores and businesses. With all that it appears that a little over 50% of the land has currently been constructed.
Whittier Village, which officially opened a few months ago, is primarily filled with upscale souvenir shops. The one exception is a large supermarket called Progressive Foods. It is located a few kilometers east of Mobay alongside Highway 2000 and across the street from Blue Diamond Shopping Mall. The Blue Diamond shopping mall has been in existence long before I started coming to Jamaica. While there are some souvenir shops here, there are also other stores catering to the locals such as Diamond Drug. On the upper level is The Vegas Flamingo Gaming Lounge and Island Black Pearl Nightclub which has only been opened a few months.
There is one other fairly new complex between Fairview Shopping Center and downtown but has only two tenants, Mega Mart and Island Grill. Mega Mart is a large wholesale company similar to Sam’s Club or Costco in the United States. Island Grill is part of the largest Jamaican fast food restaurants specializing in jerk and barbecue chicken. Between these two businesses is a two story building suited for retail stores but to date they are all empty. This shopping center is located across Howard Cooke Boulevard from the site of the famous Reggae Sumfest.
Some things change and some things stay the same. One new innovation to Mobay is pedestrian signals at most of the traffic lights but this has been largely ignored by those on foot. Fencing was erected at several key spots to force those to use the designated crosswalks but this has failed miserably and further congested the narrow streets. Just the same, the government is moving in the right direction. The big question is how to educate the populace to this modern safety initiative. Mobay is slowly coming out of the dark ages which can only go to serve the all important tourist market and that of its friendly populace. Later….