Wednesday, June 27, 2018

YARD SISTERS' Authentic Jamaican Tours in Support of Local Enterprise

Jamaica remains one of the top tourist destinations internationally for many reasons: beautiful weather, delicious cuisine, groovy music, breathtaking views, and charming, warm citizens. Year-round, the island is filled with tourists from around the globe who want to listen to reggae music while eating jerk chicken on one of the island's remarkable beaches.

According to the Jamaica Tourist Board, approximately 4.3 million travellers visited the island in the year 2017, which was a great increase from the usual expectation of 1 million annually. The boost in travellers over the years is also bringing a shift in habits as well. 

Earlier this year, the Jamaican Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett noted that visitors are increasingly seeking "authentic experiences" and opting to "immerse themselves in local culture: the food, music, people and communities" beyond the resorts of the north coast.

From Montego Bay to Ocho Rios, and Negril to Kingston, at any given time of year individuals are seeking the comforts and joys of Jamaica. For Calgary native Kym McCulley, it didn't take her long to discover that away from the lavish resorts and expertly managed hotels, that there was so much more to be experienced.

Kym is just one third of the entrepreneurs who founded YARD SISTERS, a Jamaican-based tour company that provides uniquely personalized and authentic experiences for visitors and Jamaican residents. Along with Jamaican residents Sheba Lindo, and Aljernon Wilson, YARD SISTERS is determined to no only provide excellent service to its patrons, but also to positively affect the communities in which they travel.

In 2014, Kym volunteered with the Canadian government within the industry of economic development, visiting Jamaica regularly. Travelling to the island solo, she'd often want to leave the confines of the uptown hotels in Kingston and instead explore the hills and valleys of the picturesque terrain around her.

Provided with a driver--Aljernon--Kym became more and more interested in branching out across Jamaica, and found herself expanding past the boundaries of her work, and into locales off the beaten trail. A genuine trust developed with Aljernon, and it soon blossomed into a partnership. While working in Portmore (just outside of Kingston), she became acquainted with Sheba (who worked training tour guides in Trenchtown), and the concept of  YARD SISTERS quickly became a reality.

Kym now travels between Jamaica and Canada many times for the year, and just returned from a 4-month stay on the island. Responsible for the photography and online maintenance of the company, she looks forward to organizing YARD SISTERS bookings, helping to plan itineraries, and also to develop what she believes is a necessary type of service for both the Jamaicans and the international visitors.

Aljernon takes care of airport pickups and driving, providing expert knowledge and awareness of the various tour stops and routes. Sheba's black caster oil farm is an unofficial home base and tour favourite, where visitors can witness the local enterprise and actively be a part of the community's development as a result.

"Come See Our Jamaica" is the slogan for the YARD SISTERS, because visitors can see the day-to-day operation of the farm and even dine under the stars. They can chat with Al about his young children and life in Jamaica while he drives across the country. By showing visitors "their" Jamaica, the YARD SISTERS hope to open up vacations to include unique and memorable experiences, as well help to build up the local economy through supporting the farm workers, community designers, and other patrons that they like to endorse.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about Jamaica is that it isn't safe," said Kym, when asked about the apprehensions that the YARD SISTERS hope to help visitors to Jamaica overcome. News stories and natural panic help to contribute to these fears, but she understands that some may be hesitant to step outside of the resort gates and unofficially explore. "Crime is everywhere, however. There are places in Calgary that I won't even travel to in the day time, let alone night!" said Kym. "Like many other major cities, I believe that most of the crime in Jamaica takes place with gang activities and being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But my experience overall has been that Jamaica is very safe, and it would be a shame to not see everything that the island has to offer because of these misconceptions."

Describing her relationship with Sheba and Al as familial, Kym says that Sheba is like a sister to her, and Al like a little brother. "What I love about Jamaica is that when a Jamaican adopts you into their world, you are a friend for life. The acceptance comes from the soul, and from the heart."

While her travels originally brought her to Kingston for work, Kym was grateful to be introduced to the island through this vibrant city. "Kingston is such an exciting city. Such an interesting, dynamic city filled with some of the most incredible performing and visual artists, and a vibrant arts and culture scene. We often encourage people to fly there, and at least stay for a couple of nights."

A part of the tour's service includes helping visitors to find accommodations, including guest houses and hotels outside of the city's core. The YARD SISTERS encourage their guests to explore, and talk with the locals to learn about their passions, beliefs, and views on life.

"Those are the real moments," said Kym. "Sometimes I like to hang out in the small bars on the roadside, have a beer, and converse with the locals who wander in and out throughout the day for a quick drink. Some of the best stories of my life, I've heard while in Jamaica."

Many of the recommendations made from the YARD SISTERS are based on experiences they themselves enjoy and cherish. From having moonlight meals at the caster oil farm, to sitting under a tribal tree in the Maroon Village, enjoying drumming and dancing. Visiting the Trenchtown cultural yard and taking in a musical performance. Eating jelly, fresh from a fallen coconut, or receiving a massage at the bath in St. Thomas.

"It's all about spreading the experience around the island," said Kym. "Even on the tours, there are particular spots that we prefer, but we ask visitors to give us an idea of what they would like to do, and we work around it. From art, to photography, coffee, or music: everything is so individualized, and we work within their budget as well. We know some places that we love to share, but we also don't force our preferences on the visitors either. We help them to plan and provide as much information and advice that we can, as we put together the itinerary."

Of utmost importance to Kym, Al, and Sheba is keeping relationships and partnerships with the local Jamaican entrepreneurs intact and thriving. The individuals working on the black caster oil farms, and those who prepare meals are all members of the local communities that contribute to the authenticity of the experiences, but also help to boost their local economy--outside of the regular tourist industry's activity. Tourism is definitely evolving on the island, and the YARD SISTERS want to stay connected to the trends and changes.

"I believe Jamaica is a natural attractor, with its rich heritage," said Jamaican Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett in an address earlier this year, noting that 55,000 tourists visiting Jamaica in 2017 booked an Air BnB, which was up from 35,000 in the previous year. "We have added over 20,000 new visitors with a different type of demand for experiences in our space."

Kym believes that along with following trends (like those taking place with accommodations), it's important to be socially responsible and socially uplifting with their service.

"I love the Jamaican people, the Jamaican culture, and I love to continuously learn about it," she said. "Jamaica is a beautiful country, and the people of Jamaica work hard." She is dedicated to introducing people to Jamaica through YARD SISTERS, and hoping that they walk away from their personalized tour experience with the same joy, first-hand knowledge, and inspiration that she did during her introduction to the the island. "Sheba, Al, and I want to invite everyone to experience YARD, and we are committed to showing them the beauty of the island in a memorable way."

HOW TO BOOK A TOUR OF JAMAICA WITH "YARD SISTERS"

1) Visit the YARD SISTERS online on Instagram: send a DM to say hello, and get started!
2) Send an email to kym.mcculley@gmail.com to start planning your excursions!
3) Exchange phone numbers, and chat live or via video to get familiar with your tour elements!
4) Get ready to experience the culture, beauty, and community that makes Jamaica rich!

YARD SISTERS: Come See Our Jamaica
Affordable Custom Experience Trips Now Available




Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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