Business

Heritage tourism on new path in Falmouth

BY ALEXIS MONTEITH
Observer writer

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

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IN the Jamaican tourism business the term “real Jamaica” is a common one. Tourists visiting the island express the desire for an authentic Jamaican experience while industry managers often state their intention to create a genuine Jamaican tourism product.

The reality, however, is that products like the all-inclusive hotels remain the most popular type of accomodations while adventure experiences like swimming with dolphins, zip lining and climbing waterfalls pull more travellers than small cultural or historical tours that give you a feel for the “real Jamaica”.

Nevertheless, the smaller tours do exist despite the popularity of the more mass market excursions. The Falmouth Heritage Walking Tour and The Falmouth Jewish Cemetery Tour are examples of how smaller tours can be greatly appreciated by tourists but still face an uphill battle to thrive.

These two excursions in the Jamaican port town of Falmouth were created by Marina Delfos, a professional with years of experience in the tourism business. Delfos pursued her Masters Degree in Heritage Management which was a clear indicator of her passion for this kind of tourism which would one day lead to the creation of her Falmouth tours.

“I get my satisfaction from the appreciation our guests have for these tours,” Delfos says.

“The numerous exciting reviews on the Internet motivate me to keep at it. I have also been inspired by the enthusiasm for the Jewish Cemetery Tour. I have seen Jewish travellers moved to tears when they realise the cemetery is being maintained by non-Jewish Jamaicans who care about it. Such reactions and all the positive feedback tells me I am doing something special, here,” Delfos told the Jamaica Observer.

After earning her degree, Delfos worked on the Falmouth Port Project during its early development phase and it was there that her appreciation for Falmouth and its potential was born.

She later worked as a Project Coordinator with the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and was also involved in the setting up of Stingray City in Oracabessa and the Outameni Experience attraction in Trelawny

It was in 2009 that she co-founded Falmouth Heritage Walks Ltd and in February 2011 The Falmouth Heritage Walking Tour began operating with the arrival of the first cruise ship to Falmouth. This cultural and historical experience is a guided tour which takes place on foot through the old streets of Falmouth, some of which were originally laid in the 18th century.

The walks explore landmarks like the Falmouth Courthouse, the Baptist Manse which was believed to be the home of abolitionist William Knibb in the 1830s, the Old Post Office which is almost 200 years old, Water Square which was a reservoir allowing Falmouth to have piped water before even New York City had that privilege, and a number of other fascinating locations.

In 2013 Marina also created the Falmouth Jewish Cemetery Tour. The cemetery is more than 200 years old and over the last two centuries prominent members of Jamaica's Jewish community have been laid to rest at the site. The cemetery was restored in recent times after years of neglect and is preserved by non-Jewish Jamaicans.

These two excursions have won acclaim from many of the tourists who chose to experience them. In 2015, the Falmouth Heritage Walking Tour earned a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor and has earned this certificate every year since then. Numerous glowing reviews can be found on TripAdvisor and it is also featured on Lonely Planet. The Jewish Cemetery has also generated positive emotional responses from guests seeking an education in Jamaican culture.

So why, despite the positive acclaim, would these tours prove to be a tough business challenge?

One reason simply has to do with size. Delfos explains that the larger tours which provide adventure experiences or thrills pull greater numbers of people. This helps sellers on the cruise ships to fill their sales quotas. So naturally these tours are harder to compete with.

If the Falmouth tours are to continue fulfilling the promise of an authentic Jamaican experience, the number of people on each tour has to be limited to small groups so that they can follow the talks of the guides who communicate important historical and cultural information. Larger groups would lose the intimacy that is required for such an experience. Usually there are no more than 12 people to a tour guide.

Despite these challenges, the tour was successful mainly because it was very popular with the Celebrity Cruise Line. However, in the last cruise ship season Celebrity removed Falmouth from its itinerary. Delfos explains that 45 per cent of her business came from the Celebrity Cruise Line. This was the biggest blow to the business since its inception.

Tourist harassment was also another challenge to Marina's walking tour when it began operation in 2011 but she is quick to point out that presently the situation is much improved. The current State of Emergency in the nearby parish of St James has also led to lower numbers as tourists have become hesitant to walk in the streets.

The larger tours are less affected by these factors. Big attractions are usually enclosed areas that tend to escape tourist harassment. This also makes guests comfortable about visiting them even if there is news in the media about a State of Emergency. Being the most popular tours and enjoying greater numbers they are better able to absorb the impact of any negative developments.

Delfos remains determined, however, to continue her tours for as long as she can sustain them financially. She is driven by the same passion that led her to pursue her Masters in Heritage Management years ago. The enthusiasm for promoting the “real Jamaica” has not waned despite the difficulties.

Delfos told the Business Observer that even her tour guides are inspired by the Falmouth Heritage Walks. They have expressed to her that learning about their own town's history as part of their training was an enjoyable and highly rewarding experience that motivates them to provide that same experience to their guests.

To reinforce this point, an excerpt from one TripAdvisor guest review reads, “All I can say is that we had the best of the best while we were in Falmouth. People who are genuine and proud of where they live telling you all manner of fascinating things about the history of Falmouth and their life there.”

In defiance of the odds and in an affirmation of her passion, Delfos is not retreating from the difficulties of pursuing her entrepreneurial project. Instead she has added another excursion called the Falmouth Digital Street Photography Tour. This promises to be yet another unique experience in the town of Falmouth.

The tour is a project of the New York Institute of Photography Adventures which will provide photography instructors to help tourists practise their photography in different settings around the town.

The excursion is advertised on the institute's website and features a quote from the famous American poet, Robert Frost. Although the quote is used to promote the photography tour it could easily be about Marina Delfos and the business choice she made in 2011. It was a passionate choice to pursue the more difficult path, to provide foreign visitors with something different and to promote the “real Jamaica” despite the challenges and without regret.

The quote from Robert Frost explains it all. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

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