Any time a country or region imposes any sort of visa stipulation - even if it’s a waiver - the travel industry sighs a collective groan, knowing the obstacles and headaches to come.
TORONTO — Jamaica’s latest visitor stats are impressive on several fronts. The island’s 4.3 million visitors in 2017 – “easily a fantastic year”, says the JTB’s Director of Tourism, Donovan White – included more than half a million first-time visitors to Jamaica. For a destination that prides itself on its 42% repeat visitor rate, those 500,000 new converts are tourism revenue gold.
Jamaica’s strong performance piggybacks on a record year in 2016, adds White, who took over the director’s post at the start of 2018. “People travel for experiences and we have created a destination that is full of experiences,” he told Travelweek.
The State of Public Emergency declared earlier this year by Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness for St. James Parish, which includes Montego Bay, hasn’t kept visitors away, he added. The move freed up extra funds to get more police into the area in response to escalating crime.
The JTB saw an uptick in calls after media coverage of the state of public emergency, but steady support from Jamaica’s tour operator partners, and a calm, level-headed response to the situation from the JTB itself, kept visitor numbers steady.
“One in every two tourists to Jamaica comes back [to the island]. They don’t come back because they’re scared or frightened. They come back because they love the destination,” said White.
Strong lift helps, with airlines and tour operators fully onboard and more than 40,000 new seats out of Canadian gateways, notably Calgary, for the winter 2018-19 season.
Jamaica has an opportunity to increase its Canadian visitation this winter by 60,000 new visitors, adds White.
Ramping up visitation also means ramping up room stock, and that’s in the JTB’s plan too. Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, who met with Travelweek along with White, has a mission to grow room stock by 15,000 rooms in short order. For the Canadian market especially, those rooms need to be priced right.
“The Canadian market is price-conscious,” acknowledged Bartlett. “And our rooms are skewed to the higher end of the market.”
Joining Jamaica’s long list of well-known resorts is Excellence Oyster Bay with all-inclusive, adults-only luxury stays. Sister company Finest Resorts, part of the Excellence Group, is also planning an Oyster Bay resort.
A renewal project is also underway for the former Breezes Montego Bay, with a new resort opening on the site most likely in November 2018, with 220 rooms.
Meanwhile Sandals Resorts – practically synonymous with Jamaica and its stellar tourism product – is working on retrofits and refurbishments of its many properties on the island, says Bartlett. Sandals Resorts International’s partnership with Marriott International to manage a new 220-room AC Hotels by Marriott property in Jamaica’s capital is moving ahead, with construction on the $50 million AC Kingston well underway. The hotel is currently eyeing a summer 2019 launch.
Playa Resorts and RIU Hotels & Resorts are well into several refurbishments too. Playa Resorts became one of Jamaica’s largest resort owners earlier this year thanks to its agreement with Jamaica’s Sagicor Group. Playa’s Jamaica portfolio now includes four existing resorts, including the 489-room Hilton Rose Hall, the 268-room Jewel Runaway Bay, the 250-room Jewel Dunn’s River, and the 225-room Jewel Paradise Cove. It also includes an 88-room hotel tower and spa, two developable land sites with a potential density of up to 700 rooms, and a hotel management contract for the Jewel Grande Palmyra. Playa also has Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall and Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall.
More new projects include a Hard Rock Montego Bay, with upwards of 1,000 rooms, and properties from Karisma Hotels & Resorts, which has made a 5,000 room commitment to the island.
Says White: “There is a tremendous amount of vested interest to grow the product, and we’re keen to grow the diversity of the product too.”
Infrastructure has improved as well, most notably the new four-lane North-South highway which opened a couple of years ago and significantly decreased drive times between key destinations. MoBay’s Sangster International Airport is also on the renovation docket with an expansion of the customs and immigration areas on the way. Kingston Airport is in line for modernization too.
Jamaica welcomes about 400,000 Canadians annually and the goal now for the JTB’s Regional Director – Canada, Philip Rose and his team is to grow that number to 500,000 over the next two years. “We believe we have the lift to do it, and the commitment from our partners,” said White.
“We’re confident we can achieve it,” says Rose.
Meanwhile the JTB’s ‘5 by 5 by 5’ plan is aiming for 5 million visitors and $5 billion in revenues over 5 years. At the end of year two “we’re well on our way,” says Bartlett. “We believe we are working to our targets and we’re heartened by our commitment from our partners.”
Jamaica was extraordinarily lucky during the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, emerging completely unscathed from a wild six months that saw several of its Caribbean neighbours take hard hits from Irma and Maria.
Global tourism is weathering an unprecedented storm of not seismic, climactic events like earthquakes and hurricanes, but also pandemics and epidemics and economic and political disruptions, says Bartlett. In an effort to help disseminate information quickly and efficiently, Jamaica has taken the lead and established the Global Centre for Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management. A first-of-its-kind resource in the Caribbean, the centre will launch Jan. 31, 2019 coinciding with the Caribbean Travel Marketplace, taking place at the Montego Bay Convention Centre Jan. 29 – 31.