The true value of visiting Jamaica can't be found in all-inclusive hotels

Imagine you have a couple weeks of free time ahead of you and the great desire to travel to Jamaica. One of the first questions you will ask yourself is: Where should I stay? Sometimes those all-inclusive offers can be appealing, because of low-prices and the fact that you don’t have to worry about anything. However, you should ask yourself a very different question.

Guesthouse or All-Inclusive?

We from REAL JAMAICA do not support all-inclusive hotels or resorts. We believe in ecotourism and social tourism – a way of traveling a country while giving back to it’s people. We focus on helping travelers to experience Jamaica in a way, which you will never see when staying in a resort or hotel. Anyhow, I think it’s necessary to explain WHY those of us who love Jamaica have such strong opinions about all-inclusives.

The main question you have to ask yourself, when it comes to choosing if you’re going to travel and backpack or book an all-inclusive hotel is: What do you really want to get out of your holidays?

You should go to an all-inclusive hotel/resort when:

  • You want to be taken care of and you’re okay with paying a little more
  • You just want to relax on a (crowded) beach or by the pool side without getting in touch with the local culture
  • You’re okay with visiting to the most touristic sights along with big groups
  • You are ok with staying in big concrete facilities with hundreds of other people
  • You’re okay with being in a surrounding completely created for foreigners
All-Inclusive Hotel Beach

You should travel and backpack the island when:

  • You’re ready to explore new places, try new things, meet new people
  • You want to plan for yourself, and be responsible for everything you do along the way
  • You’re ready to experience the most unexpected things (in positive and possibly also negative ways)
  • You want to make new friends and learn from such amazing people you usually never find in tourist areas
  • You’re interested in learning about the culture, lifestyle and way of thinking
Local Beach

In my opinion, it doesn’t matter to what country you go, when staying at an all-inclusive hotel. It’s basically the same anyway.
But if the all-inclusive idea interests you, because you don’t want to worry about your meals, then there are many smaller hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs that either offer AI as an option or would be delighted to prepare meals for you (for an extra cost, of course). Just ask.

Visitors are usually shocked at the level of poverty they see in Jamaica, because they know that millions of tourists visit the island every year and think the place should look better. There are good reasons it doesn’t.

When you think about resort cities around the world, local residents in the community can benefit by establishing small businesses nearby for the resort tourists to eat, drink, shop, etc. and to provide services. The resort also provides much-needed jobs for the community. In other words, the tourist dollars trickle into the economy of the community, and everybody wins. This does NOT happen in Jamaica, except to a small degree in MoBay.

The mega-resorts don’t buy much, if any, vegetables, fruits, meats, or other food from Jamaicans. Instead, they have most of what they serve to you shipped in from elsewhere. Those mangoes you’re enjoying are probably imported from Mexico! The resort has restaurants, bars/clubs, and gift shops so that you never have to leave to get what you need. This is by design.

They also control who can do business on their premises (e.g. tour guides, etc). And then they discourage you from venturing outside their walls (mostly by scaring you about what could happen if you do!). If you feel like attending a local church service or want a recommendation for something to do, somewhere to eat, take care when you ask a regular resort employee. They lose their jobs for referring guests somewhere off-resort.

All-Inclusive Trip to Dunns RIver Falls
A typical organized trip to Dunns River Falls

Most of these all-inclusives don’t hire locals from within the parish. Employees travel across the island from long distances, or are imported from elsewhere. If you are a motivated entrepreneur and wish to cater to tourists with a local restaurant/cafe, a tour business, or some other service, good luck to you! If no one ever leaves the resort, you will have no customers. So you eventually just give up and continue to live in poverty. (In Portland where there are no AIs, several of the large resorts have community farms growing their food, restrict hiring to people who live in the parish, and happily encourage their guests to support the local people/businesses. BRAVO!)

So, in Jamaica at least, the BILLIONS of dollars that flow through the all-inclusives every year do NOT trickle down into the community. It should be no surprise that surrounding communities cannot thrive without the help of even a few of those dollars. Most everyday Jamaicans simply don’t benefit from tourists at all. I think this is very sad, that’s why we encourage eco-tourism. Tour with a local guide, you will be amazed by the beauty of the island and its hidden treasures.

Kwaman Waterfalls
Off the beaten path track to Kwaman Waterfalls

The resorts have essentially been given total control over most of the spectacular coastline by the government. Jamaican families cannot enjoy their local beaches because they are mostly private now although in some areas they can pay to get in! This is why, for example, maintaining Winnifred Beach in Portland as a public beach (after a LONG court battle won) was such a huge victory for locals.

If you want to get to know the culture and spirit of Jamaica and its people, by all means stay OUT of all-inclusive resorts!

One of the biggest differences, I believe, are the people you meet and the way they treat you. As a tourist in a hotel you barely get to interact with locals who are not hustlers. The main people you will see are tour guides, the hotel staff and other tourists. On the other hand a traveler gets to stay and interact with local families, meet great people and experience true adventures.

One night I ended up in the backyard of a famous artist and captured some scenes of that evening. It’s moments like these that make your journey unforgettable.

If you are interested in this feature, please contact the Real Jamaica team! Thanks!


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All posts from Johannes


  • Hi we’re looking at travelling to ocho rios and negril over Christmas this year. What would you guys recommend as top places to see, should we book hotels in advanced or just turn up? Thanks, Lorna

  • I’m so late with this article but if by any chance you see this can you please tell me how I can get a vacation away from the all inclusive resorts!!!! I’m planning a trip with my daughter and I really don’t want to be around these type of ppl who will be at these resorts! I wanna meet the locals and eat the food from the island. I DO NOT WANNA SPEND MY MONEY WITH THESE PEOPLE!! Anyways by any chance you see this please just leave me a message or a link or whatever that might be able to help me out. Thanks in advance if you do or someone does see this before next year…

  • We are staying at a small Inn in Montego Bay and would like to meet local musicians. This will be our first time to Jamaica. Any suggestions on how we can meet musicians?

  • Well said! I backpacked Jamaica before Christmas and it was to this date the most amazing travel experience I’ve had. Real Jamaicans, real food, real culture… Exactly what traveling is about in my mind.

    Thank you for bringing forth this perspective

  • I travel to Jamaica 3-4 times a year. I rent a car, meet up with at least one friend and travel all around Jamaica. I have been on the all inclusive. It was hugely disappointing. I don’t travel to stay on a compound. Over the years I have made half a dozen friends and I have gone into their communities. Every word said in this article is true. There are so many levels of poverty. I want to learn about the culture and experience the REAL JAMAICA. I am now in a relationship with a Jamaican that lives in Canada. He feels I am obsessed with the country. These resorts are owned by foreigners. It doesn’t matter how high end the resort is, the pay is low and it makes it difficult for the staff to survive. When they are about to throw food in the garbage at the end of the day, if staff are caught taking one bite, they are fired. The cost of living for locals is high. The land is beautiful. The resorts need to take responsibility for all of the pollution they are dumping into the sea. Raw sewage is destroying those lovely coral reefs I like to snorkel over. Any country I would visit in the future would have to be owned by a local and run by locals. Jamaica is my second home. Everyday I am reminded of that by a beautifully carved mahogany wood that says it all – “Jamaica Home Sweet Home.

  • Your article is spot on, I have been to Jamacia 28 time, and I have stayed in both places, all inclusive 3 time, the first time it was a Sandals, it was lovely, the second in Ocho with my kids which was perfest for them, there were many things to keep them entertained, and one more time a few years ago in Negril, when I had come off of ahuge business decision, and didnt want to think about doing anything else for myself so for those reasons an all inclusive is wonderful. the rest of my trips were either in botique holels or small rentals which included security, kitchens, cleanliness plus amazing gardens, I have traveled all through Jamaica, with the exception of Kingston, just havent gotten there yet, and many of the locals now I call friends, they have taken me places you would never experience with a tour group or even on your own, for me the locals have always been nothing more than wonderful, and if your smart you can tell who’s a hustler and who is not, eyes wide open will allow you to see Jamacia in a unique way, and all it has to offer. and although i could never write like Ernest Hemmingway, I would have enough stories of my traveles through that land that would make an interesting read for all. 🙂

  • As a Jamaican who now resides in New York I returned very often as a single man and learned so much more about the land of my birth by staying and renting cars from local facilities. Man I have so much memories from those experiences.

    Now as a man with a family I use the services of All Inclusives as it suits my needs for shelter and food but it lacks any local assimilation and the real nitty gritty. When I stay there I usually get a local driver not affiliated with the hotel to take me on trips.

    So use the ‘little man’ so dem can eat a food too. Going forward I will no longer stay at AI’s

  • Great article and I agree 100%. NO ONE should stay in a resort!!! Why bother going to Jamaica.. go to Florida or any beach anywhere. Makes no sense to me at all. I live in Jamaica as much as my US visa allows (usually 6 months a year) and have been coming to Jamaica since 1991. I never want to leave. Good and bad I love it all! Is that Mikey General in that video??? ONE LUV, Pattimani

  • I do believe your article is right on track, I do believe that villa’s (small and large)are also a alternative just as a small hotel which offers a driver and in some cases a person that will take you to see stops all over Jamaica. Enjoyed your article.

  • hi,
    I was in Jamaica for 17 days, and travelled around the Island. I did mostly backpacking but also stayed in an all inclusive resort in Negril for 3 days. So here’s my experience:

    I really hated the way locals treated me in Negril, and Ocho Rios, and a little bit in Portland. I was hassled many times, and it was really annoying to walk on the streets as I felt like I was being targeted every 20 meters. I felt bad because everyone asked me to support them, and even though I gave a lot ( left most clothes and material things there) i couldn’t help everybody. I was on a vacation, but I felt really bad and annoyed in those touristy places as a backpacker.

    My experience in Kingston and Portmore was great. The people there were very nice and I didn’t feel I was being hassled, and actually enjoyed my time a lot. I stayed at Jamnesia, a surf camp and at a hostel in nee Kingston. I immediately felt at home, the locals were nice and welcoming.

    My 3 days at an all inclusive were awesome, very relaxing and everything taken care off, but it’s true, you don’t learn anything about the country.

    I wish people were friendlier in the touristy places and didn’t hassle as much. I understand why they do it, but for me, as a vacationeer, I will not go back to those towns.
    I m going back to Kingston next december, but will not go to touristy places at all.

    Just my thoughts…

    • That is a very interesting comment Dani and one you should convey to the Jamaica Tourist Board. Most Jamaicans recognise that there is a problem with being hassled and even though I live here myself I get my fair share. Its just poor people trying to make a living and its not personal although annoying. I like Kingston too because it is generally more sophisticated and the people better behaved. Dont give up on the Negril experience there are some interesting places to go where you wont be troubled. Ocho Rios though is something different.

      I suggest you take the time to visit Treasure Beach in the south that will fit your bill and and the locals are great. Good Luck

  • Well in an AI, you’ll never be able to pick a mango straight off the tree for breakfast 🙂 Nice write-up Johannes 🙂

  • Hey, great article here. I notice on trip advisor and other forums there seems to be a big divide about the AI crows vs the boutique hotel or real experience crowd. I’m definately not an AI person, however I hate when people get so at each others throats about your not truly getting the experience or your cheap which seems to be arguments both sides say.

    To each their own, if someone wants to eat buffet food and not experience the local food more power to them. If someone wants to have a legit local experience more power to them.

    I like boutique hotels, one of my favs is coco la palm although its gone up in price with the new sandy haven next door and them doing renovations. I do have to say though I’ve only done an AI once and I’m not a big fan of the experience, I do like the idea of having a price locked in and not worrying about what I’m going to spend. Also as much as I love trying different restaurants about day 4 when I’m out in the sun and tired and hungry I sometimes do wish I could jus walk donwstairs and have some food prepared for me without having to decie where to eat, what to order, how much is it going to cost, etc.

    I have a Jamaica travel blog at where I talk about which money to take, how to get from the airport to Negril, some of the god day trips to take, etc.

    • A

      Hi John, I’m glad you like the article. Our primary intention with REAL JAMAICA is to support locals and make it easier to travel Jamaica. Yes, you’re right, there are folks with different preferences. Some like the all-inclusive hotel style, while others prefer to hang out with locals and experience the real Jamaica. Our aim is not to start a fight between each other, that would make no sense, but we certainly stand by our beliefs.

      With this blog post, we wanted to give the reader some insights on the damage for local communities generated by the all-inclusive tourism industry, to show off the differences between each holiday type, as well as the meaning of traveling the real Jamaica. Since I read and heard a lot of negative feedback and disappointments from tourists who stayed at hotels or resorts, I really hope, that especially people who are not sure about where to stay, will read this article.

      Travel safe and enjoy fully!

      • Great article. All Inclusives tend to be exercises in postcard-perfect vistas and experiences.
        They sell, for the most part, white sand and creature comforts. Many tourists, spend their money ONLY to get in some sun, some sand, and some warm water and are perfectly happy with that. And there’s nothing wrong with that -it’s their money, after all, and it is a consumer market.
        But the trouble with that is, they only experience cookie-cutter vacations. Hawaii, Malaysia, Seychelles, Jamaica, Miami, San Juan…. when they get home their memories and snapshots are interchangeable with any sunny resort in the world. They might as well stay close to home, or at least to the nearest sunny beach, and not actually “travel.”
        The AI’s tend to be Global corporations, serving global corporate interests and obviously have nothing to do with the local communities who allow their natural resources, officially or otherwise to be put on sale for profit that does not accrue to them.

        (In Jamaica, specifically, beaches were always public domain… I don’t know when that changed.)

        Mind you there are political and personal components here. Jamaica, beautiful as it is, has suffered a lot of bad press in the last decade or so, and that is, of course, our own fault. We are plagued with hustlers and gigolo’s who are allowed to prey on tourists by a government that evidently doesn’t grasp (or can’t control) the economic significance of those predators roaming the beaches of the north, west, and eastern beaches. Mr. and Mrs loaded tourist would rather spend their money someplace the feel safe, and where they are not hassled.

        I grew up in Jamaica, and know how wonderful that beautiful island can be, and what wonderful experiences await the adventurous traveller, who would rather not experience the world according to, only, Sandals etc.

        Just curious Johannes… hope I don’t offend. But, are you Jamaixcan?

  • i did a tour through ‘Tours by Locals’ with a guide named Michael in the western parish, not only was it a cultural experience, it was the highlight of my experience in Jamaica. Highly recommend leaving the barrier of th AI and see the real JA.

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