15 OCT 2018: There’s a buzz going on in Jamaica, but it’s not what you might think. The Caribbean nation is getting more airlift, experiencing massive hotel sector development, investing in infrastructure - both physical and digital and benefitting from an ambitious tourist board agenda designed to propel tourism into being the country’s top economic engine.

“Tourism is the only industry in Jamaica that has grown consistently for the past 30 years and it is on track to become the largest contributor to the GDP of our country,” Jamaica’s tourism minister Edmund Bartlett told delegates at the recent Jamaica Product Exchange (JAPEX) in Montego Bay.

“As we set our ambitions high for creating new partnerships, we’re simultaneously strengthening our ability to ensure Jamaica can safely, securely and seamlessly connect visitors to their passion point quicker.”

And there’s no question that those ambitions start at the grassroots level, says deputy director of tourism, Donnie Dawson.

“The Jamaica Tourist Board is committed to servicing the retail trade,” he said, noting that the JTB is continuing an extensive travel trade road show that began earlier this year that has already covered much of South and North America.

“We hit the road earlier this year because it is important to us. We’re educating the travel agents on what’s happening, and it is our goal that we will see 2,000 travel agents by the end of November. We want any client that walks into a travel agency this winter that wants to go somewhere warm, that wants to go to the Caribbean, to have Jamaica roll off their tongue. That’s a natural thing, that’s our goal. We don’t want an agent to say, ‘well…’ No no, no, Jamaica should just roll off your tongue.”

To that end, the JTB also invited 100 travel agents to JAPEX, the 28th annual tourism show, which was attended by wholesalers, tour operators, and media, including delegates from Canada.

“These are agents that we know sell Jamaica and are here to dedicate themselves to us. It’s very important to us,” Dawson said.

And the results are tangible, he continued. “There’s a certain energy… when you arrive in Montego Bay, there’s an excitement and buzz, because Jamaica is happening. It’s happening!”
 
Minister Bartlett agreed, pointing out that Jamaica has experienced overall market growth of 5.4 percent for the first six months of this year to nearly 3 million visitors. Moreover, summers numbers were “the best ever” with over 884,000 visitors from May to August (and 1.3 million including cruise ship passengers) – an increase of 4percent over 2017. Such increases “put the country full on track” to surpass last year’s 4.3 million visitors, which was itself a record year with 12 percent growth and a whopping 500,000 more visitors than the year before (and beyond the JTB’s 5 percent forecast).

Canada, of course, is a vital contributor to the numbers, with Bartlett (who visited Toronto in September with director of tourism Donovan White to meet with the trade) noting that 42,400 more seats, for a total of 370,000, from this country will be in the marketplace this winter to meet consumer demand, courtesy of Sunwing, Air Canada Vacations, Air Transat and WestJet. Canadian arrivals to Jamaica increased 3.5 percent from November 2017 to April 2018.

“The support that we have received from the Canadian travel network has been invaluable,” Bartlett said during his Toronto visit, adding at JAPEX, “I think that Canada is now back with bang.”

He joked with Canadian director Philip Rose that he expected Canada to top 400,000 visitors this year – well on the way to his target of half a million annual arrivals from this country.

As for why Jamaica is setting tourism records at a time when many destinations are in decline, Bartlett told Travel Industry Today that he was reluctant to point to any one factor.

“We spoke about how hyper-connected the world has become, and because of that hyper connectivity, customers have great power to make choices that are easier for them because of this digital transformation. So, Jamaica has benefitted from that.

“The Trump experience, the terrorism, the cyber crime, pandemics, epidemics, climates issues, all of these disruptions have had their impact in one way or another and number across the world, and Jamaica has been in the centre of it all. So, we don’t want to tell you of a single item that accounted for this spurt in growth; what I can tell you is that we have been marketing across demographics, and psychographics and that is the power of our experience. And we continue to do that and will grow, because you grow when you respond to the demands of the market.”

But he was he was also quick to caution, “We do not want to take this success for granted and we are aggressively targeting new (such as China, Japan and Latin America) and traditional markets to attain double-digit growth and promote Jamaica as the ideal winter tourism destination.”

One such early success is a substantial increase in lift this winter with new flights from Russia, along with additional seats from the US, UK and Continental Europe, for a total of 1.3 million seats during the winter.

“It doesn’t matter how fair your land is or how treasured your people are, if you can’t get there, you remain a thought only,” Bartlett says.

Following is a roundup of some of the new tourism developments in Jamaica:

•    Infrastructure improvements, including expansions and new technology, are planned at both Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport and Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport, the latter having an entirely “new look in the next 12 months.”

•    A new highway connecting Kingston and Port Antonio is set to begin construction by the first quarter of 2019 and completed within a year. The development will allow for a new tourism destination to be developed in southeastern St. Thomas, particularly focussed around eco tourism and health and wellness.

•    Along with ongoing highway development at transit points, aimed at getting visitors from the airports to their resort destinations within an hour, Jamaica is expected to be “fully connected, by land, by sea, and by air,” within two years.

•    A total of 7,560 new hotel rooms, including an 1,100-room Hard Rock Hotel near Montego Bay, are in the pipeline from now until 2021.

•    Excellence Oyster Bay in Montego Bay opened its first property in June. With 325 rooms on-site, this luxurious adults-only property features all-suite accommodations, upscale restaurants and bars, and a world-class spa.

•    Skylark Negril Beach Resort, sister property to Rockhouse Hotel, opened in July. The beachfront property is situated on Negril’s Seven Mile Beach offering sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea.

•    The S Hotel Montego Bay is scheduled to be completed in January 2019, with 124 rooms offering views of Doctors Cave Beach, plush beds and spa-like bathrooms with roman tubs.

•    Wyndham Kingston with 454 rooms and Marriot QC (Sandals International) with 220 rooms are scheduled to be completed by 2019.

•    Sandals is planning to redevelop the former Dragon Bay resort in Port Antonio into a “signature high end” product with a reported 2019 opening.

•    Airbnb has become a “main driver” of tourists in remote communities in Jamaica that “never thought to even remotely have tourism.”

•    Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience opened last year after Wray & Nephew completed a US$7.2 million investment project. The facility is now able to double its capacity to host visitors to the famed attraction. New additions include modern rooms to facilitate rum tastings, an expansive retail store, and a restaurant and lounge offering “Appleton-infused” Jamaican cuisine. The centrepiece of the restaurant is an “authentic” Jamaican jerk pit.

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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