Jamaica’s tourism on sustainable development path


KINGSTON, Jamaica – With all eyes focused on the Caribbean during the current ICC Cricket World Cup (CWC), the positive spin-offs of the tournament are being experienced across all sectors, particularly tourism.

But upgrading the tourism product did not just begin with preparations for the CWC, as the Jamaican Government has, for more than a decade, placed much emphasis on the sector, by carrying out an intense campaign to improve the industry through continued development and expansion.

At the turn of the new millennium, a Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development over a 10-year period was formulated. “It showed how we will move in all components of tourism. Based on that, certain things were done. The government moved to work on the infrastructure, because it was understood that this had to be in place for investment to come,” State Minister for Tourism, Entertainment and Culture, Dr. Wykeham McNeill explains in a JIS News interview.

Dr. Wykeham McNeill
State Minister for Tourism, Entertainment and Culture

The Master Plan broadly seeks to: achieve growth, based on a sustainable market position; enhance the visitor experience; focus on community-based development; build an inclusive industry; and focus on environmental sustainability.

Minister of Tourism, Entertainment, and Culture, Aloun Assamba has described the Master Plan as a clear road map for the development of the sector, reflecting “the recognition by the Government of Jamaica of the importance of this industry and its ability to increase jobs and prosperity for all Jamaicans.”

Citing some of the investments that have taken place, in keeping with the plan, Dr. McNeill mentions the North Coast Highway project, as well as the upgrading of the island’s two major airports.

“These showed an indication of the seriousness with which we took tourism. So, the foreign investment followed closely on the heels of these investments,” the State Minister asserts.

With the implementation of policy, there was an influx of investment, followed by gradual growth in arrivals, and the overall upgrading of the tourism offering, which spilled over into cruise shipping, which Dr. McNeill notes, “took off.”

Added to that, two years ago, the government took the bold step of introducing a new concept in the form of the Tourism Enhancement Fund, an offshoot of the Master Plan. The Fund is a pool of dedicated funds for the expressed purpose of improving the tourism product. Under the initiative, $10 out of every ticket for persons travelling to Jamaica, is dedicated to the Fund, to ultimately help to bankroll the necessary improvements in the sector. The broad areas of interest for the Fund include resort development, product development, and beautification.

In her Sectoral Debate presentation in the House last year, Minister Assamba explained that the central guiding principle of the Fund was “to manage the money prudently, carefully assessing requests for financing based entirely on what is in the best interest of Jamaicans and our visitors.”

“The Fund is not meant to take on the responsibilities of any other agency. As such, the Fund will concern itself primarily with incremental work to add value to the tourism product, and/or to tackle some special challenges on a one-off basis,” she explained.

Plans are being put in place for all the resort areas, with a view to enhancing the tourism product, “not just the physical aspect, but all the other aspects of the product, to make it better,” Dr. McNeill says.

“At the end of the day, the better your product, the more you can charge for it. So, it is not just about getting arrivals into the country, it is also about getting more from those persons who come, and getting the yield up, and so far we have been very successful at it,” he adds.

The result of the government’s efforts to improve the sector has become increasingly evident, particularly with the island welcoming, for the first time, more than three million visitors last year. Stop-over arrivals went up by 13.5 per cent, a “tremendous achievement,” Dr. McNeill tells JIS News.

Meanwhile, cruise ship arrivals totalled 1.3 million persons, up by 17 per cent over the previous year, and resulted in earnings of $1.9 billion, an increase of 24 per cent over 2005.

Following discussions with the Ministry of Finance and Planning and the Ministry of Transport, Housing, Water and Works, it was decided that revenues from cruise shipping would go to the Port Authority of Jamaica, to help to develop that sector.

“This year, we are off to a start. We are hoping that we are going to maintain the same levels. We are hoping that we will not only maintain what we have built, but with the increase of the product, we will see the room rates going up and that we will become more and more of a premium destination and of course this year, as we are hosting the World Cup of Cricket, we are very excited about it and we think that it will also help to give us more to offer to the tourism market,” Dr. McNeill says.

The State Minister points out that the country is competing with many others with sun, sand and sea. “What we have to do is differentiate ourselves and that is where Jamaica is really blessed,” he says.

“We have tremendous potential. When you look at what it is that makes Jamaica interesting, what it is that captures the imagination of people, you think about culture, you think about food. You take all of those things and put on top of it our entertainers, who have continued to be successful and have continued to be ambassadors for Jamaica. All of these things keep Jamaica out there and people think of Jamaica as an interesting place to go to. So while many places will have sun, sand and sea, they will never be able to replicate the culture of Jamaica,” the State Minister asserts.

Meanwhile, a number of large, international chains have and are constructing properties around the island, as Jamaica seeks to cater to an even wider market. The most recent development is the Bahia Principe, which opened its first phase of 700 rooms at Pear Tree Bottom in St. Ann, in January. The property was developed by the Pinero Group of Spain and is part of a 1,918-room three-phase project.

In Montego Bay, the Spanish Riu chain has plans for a fourth property, the Riu Mahoe Bay, and ground has already been broken for properties, including Iberostar, Fiesta Resorts, AM Resorts, and Palmyra Resort and Spa. In 2006, ground was also broken for Harmony Cove, the most exclusive resort and residential colony to be created in the Caribbean.

Dr. McNeill notes that the impact of all these developments on smaller properties has been considered, and discussions were continuing. He says that the key to small hotels and sustainability is that they have to be ’boutique’ in nature.

“Small hotels have to have their own sort of ‘sense’ about them. You will find that in a lot of these small hotels, the owners are well-known, the staff is well-trained and they have their own little culture. So you find that they get high visitor ratings, because it is a very personal relationship,” he explains.

In light of the importance of keeping the offering of the small hotel sector at a high standard, the Ministry has been exploring ways in which development in this sector can be encouraged.

“Of course, over the years, several small initiatives have been done, and now with the advent of the Fund, we are looking more seriously at how we are going to move forward to encourage the sector. It is going to come with dialogue, both with the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association and members of the sector, and the government,” the State Minister argues.

Many local hotels are also undertaking significant renovation and expansion to continuously enhance their own offerings. In Negril, Couples Swept Away Resort has completed a 74-room expansion, while Sandals Negril has undergone major refurbishing, and the Couples San Souci in Ocho Rios will expand by 250 rooms.

The Golden Eye Spa Resort of James Bond fame in Oracabessa is to expand by 219 rooms, while Superclubs Breezes Runaway Bay plans to add 30 oceanfront rooms and a number of new facilities.

The Half Moon Hotel has carried out major refurbishing, and the Decameron Group in Portland has plans for a 240-room property.

Meanwhile, what has now been catalyzed by the ICC Cricket World Cup is the bed and breakfast program, which saw in excess of 600 applications. “This is not just for the short term and it will be one of the legacies of the Cricket World Cup. We are hoping that this will continue after, because it’s another element of Jamaica.

There are different markets out there. There are markets for all inclusives, but there are also markets for small hotels and bed and breakfast. What we have to do is mature to the point where all are part of our tourism offering,” he tells JIS News.

In her inaugural contribution to the Budget Debate as Prime Minister last year, Mrs. Portia Simpson-Miller announced a significant private-public sector initiative targeted specifically at small hotels.

As of May last year, the Bank of Nova Scotia Jamaica made available a pool of funds totaling $350 million to small hotels at eight per cent per annum over seven years. The funds are available specifically for upgrading existing facilities to world class standards, and require approval by the Development Bank of Jamaica.

Under this facility, the loans will be for a maximum of $15 million each or the Jamaican equivalent of US$225,000, whichever is less.
As of this month, there are an estimated 25,000 hotel rooms in the island’s tourism inventory.

Interestingly, Dr. McNeill says that over the last five years, earnings from growth in the sector has risen by a greater percentage than the actual arrivals. “Part of this is because the visitors that are coming to Jamaica are finding far more things to do. We have found over the last five to six years, an expansion in what is offered in, for example, the shopping sector, and the attraction sector. The visitor that would come and just spend a week, during this week he is doing several excursions, so while that is happening, we are seeing more expenditure,” he explains.

Attractions are a key part of the product and as such, these too are expanding. Walkerswood, near the resort town of Ocho Rios, has a new state-of-the-art facility to meet the growing consumer demand, with fun, flavorful tours that take visitors on a journey into the island’s food heritage, from the field to the table.

Favorites such as Dolphin Cove and Chukka Caribbean Adventures are also adding new features to their facilities, with more interactive entertainment. Winterpark Amusement Centre in Negril has also opened up.

The US$600-million Shoppes at Rose Hall provides upscale shopping, dining and entertainment. The complex features a diverse mix of stores, from luxury duty-free shops to designer wear, souvenir, craft and specialty items, as well as a number of restaurants.

With the increasing developments in the sector, a number of linkages are being created in areas, such as agriculture and transportation. “For the agricultural sector, with the new entrants in the hotel sector, there is far more produce to be purchased. There are tremendous opportunities.

When you are getting 10,000 rooms in six years, it offers the manufacturing sector, with innovative ideas, tremendous possibilities,” Dr. McNeill tells JIS News.

In relation to transportation, Minister Assamba emphasized that “sustainable tourism presumes a reliable transportation system, with fully engaged players.” The final draft of the Tourism Ground Transportation Sub-Sector Policy is now undergoing a series of consultations among stakeholders, with the full participation of the Ministry of Finance.

“To facilitate the on-going development of ground transportation in the tourism sector to augment their competitiveness and enhance the product, the Ministry continues to recommend ground transportation operators for concession on the purchase of vans, buses and limousines to the Ministry of Industry, Technology, Energy and Commerce,” she informed. Recommendations are made for some 200 such operators per year.

Critical to all of this development is the strengthening of the legislative framework. The Ministry continues to review The Tourist Board Act, in order to make it more current and relevant to the local and international tourist industry, and has established a legislative review committee comprising representatives from the tourism agencies, the Attorney General’s office and the private sector tourism associations.

In addition, a second draft of the Entertainment Industry Encouragement Bill has been prepared to reflect the recommendations made by the Entertainment Advisory Board, that the genus of beneficiaries under the legislation be expanded to include music and film producers, in addition to dance and drama producers.

Accordingly, the Entertainment Policy Unit, in collaboration with Jamaica Trade and Invest (formerly JAMPRO), has compiled lists of tools of trade for music and dance and continues to work on finalizing a list for drama.

An Entertainment Policy Steering Committee (EPSC), consisting of government officials and key stakeholders, has been appointed to guide the policy development process.

Tourism accounts for some 10 per cent of Jamaica’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an estimated nine per cent of total employment, and attracts approximately half of the island’s foreign exchange earnings.

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