Jamaica’s economy is growing at a pace consistent enough to attract foreign investment, experts say.
Just seven years ago, Jamaica was an economic basket case. The government was bleeding so much red ink it couldn’t fix potholes or keep streetlights on as it faced a staggering $20 billion debt in 2013.
Today the nation of 2.8 million is the economic-turnaround story of the Caribbean. Among the tough belt-tightening decisions that got it here: improving tax and customs collection; speeding up construction permits and business registrations; imposing a three-year freeze on public sector wages, privatizing its main airport and seaport, and restructuring billions of dollars in domestic debt.
“What we’ve seen over the last five, six, seven years are things that nobody thought you could tackle,” said Brian Wynter, outgoing governor of the Bank of Jamaica, the country’s central bank. “Not just the world is looking at it, but Jamaicans are looking at that.”
Jamaica is not only solvent, but the English-speaking Caribbean nation recently paid off more than $66 million to its own electric utility, the Jamaica Public Service Company, after being behind in its payments for more than two years.
“That was highly symbolic of a new Jamaica emerging, a Jamaica that has the financial wherewithal and the financial strength to pay back its obligations,” Finance Minister Nigel Clarke said. And that’s not all.
There are more people working today in Jamaica than there have ever been. For the first time in 50 years the island nation is enjoying record-low unemployment, the country’s foreign minister told Jamaican-Americans in South Florida during a recent visit. It fell to 8 percent in the first quarter of this year from a high of 16 percent in 2013. Interest rates are also at their lowest, while banks are extending credit and foreign investments are pouring in.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who led the Jamaica Labor Party into office in 2016 by promising steep tax cuts and job creation, welcomed a $6.5 million R Hotel in New Kingston. The budding tourist zone is also preparing to welcome a new solar-powered AC Marriott next door to a two-year-old BMW showroom, and not far from a Porsche dealership. A mile-and-a-half away to the southwest, young men and women are fielding customer-service calls for tech giant Amazon and other U.S.-based companies out of the newly constructed 58 HWT Tech Park.
Meanwhile, Starbucks coffee shops selling Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee are popping up along with new luxury highrises, and Hilton has announced a new ROK Hotel by its Tapestry Collection. The 168-room hotel will be located in downtown Kingston, where the rapidly changing skyline is already being dominated by the towering new headquarters of food and finance giant GraceKennedy, a new 11-story Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and recently opened waterfront dining and entertainment options.
“I was born in 1966 and I’ve never seen an optimistic, positive economy in Jamaica before,” said Mark Myers, managing director of Restaurants of Jamaica. “Jamaica was always tough, headed in the wrong direction. Now, the environment is such that I actually see opportunity, real opportunity.”
Myers is so bullish on the economy that he’s planning to aggressively expand his family’s empire of 48 Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, by opening 10 more KFCs across Jamaica over the next two years. “Stability brings across an environment where people are willing to treat themselves,” he said.