It’s official – according to new figures from the Jamaica Tourist Board, an estimated 231,104 British tourists visited the island’s beach-fringed shores in 2022, more than ever-popular Barbados, making Jamaica the number-one destination in the Caribbean for UK travellers.
So what’s drawn us back? Easy access, for starters, with Virgin Atlantic offering thrice-weekly flights from Heathrow to Montego Bay; British Airways running a direct service from Gatwick to Kingston with the same frequency, and tour operator Tui offering flights from several UK airports.
It’s also comfortingly familiar. The ties between our islands stretch back to 1655 when forces sent by Oliver Cromwell wrested Jamaica from Spanish control. Today, the isle is divided into three counties – Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey – and its lush landscape is dotted with familiar place names such as Falmouth, Cambridge and Wakefield. Last August, the nation celebrated 60 years of independence from British rule, but it remains – for now – part of the Commonwealth and, as the then-Prince of Wales reflected at the time, “the contribution of Jamaicans to the life of this country has been immeasurable”.
That’s not all – its climate also suits us down to the ground. With the thermometer hovering at 24-27C year-round, Jamaica promises guaranteed warmth for winter sunseekers keen to relax on white sands that, in the case of Negril on the west coast, stretch for seven miles. Meanwhile, the east offers cool breezes, forest hikes and panoramic views in the world heritage-listed Blue Mountains, where the eponymous mellow coffee is produced.
Jamaica also does all-inclusive resorts very well, thanks to the genius of Gordon “Butch” Stewart, who opened the first Sandals Resort in Montego Bay in 1981. Now the company has six on the island with another, Sandals Dunn’s River, opening in May. However, you should still venture beyond the bougainvillea-showered walls. Tui, which sells holidays to 29 all-inclusive resorts around the island, has excursions from just £8. Sadly, hostile attitudes and archaic laws don’t encourage LGBT+ travellers; the island has one of the worst scores in the Caribbean in the Gay Travel Index.
Of course, you can’t talk about the lure of Jamaica without mentioning Bob Marley, who has a special bond with the UK following the time he spent in England in the 1970s. The enthusiasm for his songs draws countless devotees to the island, most making for the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, which includes the house he moved to in 1976 and the studio where he recorded Buffalo Soldier.
Don’t be put off by the prospect of visiting the capital on a guided tour – while the port does have its no-go areas and the island’s crime rate remains high, there are good things to see here, including the Coronation Market and Devon House, a mansion built in 1881 by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire.
From the 1940s onwards, celebrities such as Errol Flynn, Katharine Hepburn and Noël Coward brought glamour to its north coast. Jamaica Inn, where Marilyn Monroe honeymooned and Winston Churchill painted, is the best place to tune into this early jet-set vibe; it celebrates its 65th anniversary this year.
And it would be remiss to conclude any discussion of the British love of Jamaica without mentioning a certain spy. Ian Fleming wrote all the James Bond novels at Goldeneye, his home in Oracabessa, and island locations have received invaluable publicity in many 007 films, including the most recent No Time To Die. If it’s good enough for Daniel Craig...