Hellshire Beach Boxing Day

Parking at Hellshire Beach

Hellshire Beach is a sandy warren of tin-sided bars, restaurants, and produce stands. When you pass under the Hellshire Beach archway, you immediately see a crush of cars and a crush of people. Cars in a desperate search for parking. People streaming to the thumping sound of beach sound systems. It is an energetic, cacophonous system dedicated to chill beach vibes and fresh seafood.

Our arrival

Through the gates, informal parking attendants rush to your car and usher you to a parking spot. I use the term “parking spot” liberally because you park wherever anyone can find a place to stuff your vehicle.

In our case we were told to park in the middle of an intersection. Our ‘stall’ was six inches to the side of the van selling coconuts, bananas, pineapples, and sugar cane from the north side of the island. I had to crawl out the passenger window to exit.

Five parking attendants situated us and then each vigorously suggested a different place to eat, drink, and relax on the beach. One held up a fistful of lobsters and asked us to eat them at his restaurant for $1,250 JMD per pound (about $9 US). We usually can buy lobster for $450 JMD per pound (about $3.50 US) so we politely declined.

Jamaican lobsters don’t have claws (or if they do they’re so tiny you can’t see them)

Exiting the maze

When we left late that afternoon the beach scene had gotten much busier. Departing cars fought against the festive lines streaming in. We would have been stuck without the adept help of six or so attendants.

They guided our car around every goat, vendor, bar, and motorcycle, stopped traffic ahead of us, and offered all manner of foods, drinks, and smokables. We tipped the kind man who had been watching after our car (no scratches despite its precarious position) and then went merrily on our way.

Why so much parking help?

Everyone in the car commented on how helpful it was to have so much assistance. This made me wonder why it’s so common here in Jamaica but not the U.S. A few theories:

Theory 1: Parking services flourish amongst vast economic disparity. Cars are comparatively rare in Jamaica; generally only the fairly wealthy own cars. Attendants provide (indispensable) car parking and security services and receive payment this is comparatively cheap for car owners to pay but comparatively lucrative for attendants to earn.
Theory 2: Cars are very valuable in Jamaica so protecting them makes economic sense. In addition to the cost of shipping cars to the island (think 30 percent added costs), Jamaica also charges an 83 percent tariff on imported cars. A car that costs $24,000 in the U.S. might cost $50,000 in Jamaica. With a per capita GDP of around $8,000/year, even a normal car represents multi-year earnings for the average Jamaican. As a result, any effort and time spent protecting these assets is likely worthwhile.
Theory 3: Parking services are directly economically tied to the restaurant/ entertainment economy. Hellshire Beach is a sea of restaurants, bars, and tourist entrepreneurs (e.g. horse rides for hire). Parking attendants may have economic arrangements with these businesses. Parking attendants help drivers find a spot, then work to recruit passengers to visit a particular bar, restaurant, or other business. The attendant then could receive a finder’s fee for that patron.
Theory 4: Attendants are recruited and compensated by local business associations or even government. Security guards, landscape staff, random machete-men, and tour guides are often employed by groups of local businesses or the government. Jamaica relies so heavily on tourism that it’s in the interests of many parties to ensure tourist experiences are good and safe.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and speculation.