Good. But not good enough.
The Jamaica Minister of Tourism, the Honourable Edmund Bartlett, was in Toronto last week to talk about tourism in Jamaica.
Last year some 380,000 Canadians visited Jamaica. That’s good, and Canadians spend more than most tourists, but it’s below the record of 400,000, Bartlett said.
In a report in the Jamaica Gleaner, Bartlett said the Canadian market dropped 6.8 per cent in Jamaica last year. Which is why he was in Toronto to talk with travel planners, Canada’s major airlines and journalists. He told the Gleaner the meetings in Canada “are a crucial part of our renewed action plan to end the decline and put us firmly on a growth path.”
Jamaica has what Bartlett jokingly calls a “High Five” plan, with the aim of attracting five million visitors within the next five years. They had 3.7 million visitors at last count, so 5 million is a tall but not outrageous order.
The Canadian dollar is down against the U.S. greenback, but Bartlett said the Jamaica dollar is “very competitive.” Jamaica has been undercut by low-cost competitors, such as the Dominican Republic and Mexico. With direct flights on commercial airlines starting last week, Cuba is now on the U.S. radar, which provides another challenge.
Bartlett told me Jamaica has lovely high-end products but needs to show its more affordable side. He also spent some time during our meeting to highlight growing areas of the country, including Port Antionio, an up-and-coming region east of Ocho Rios and the Treasure Beach area, on the south side of the island west of Kingston.
I had the good fortune of staying at Jake’s Treasure Beach a few years ago and fell in love with the place. The beach isn’t so amazing, but the property has an artsy, casual vibe and felt much more authentic than most hotels. Units are designed in a variety of styles; some resemble Moroccan homes with outdoor bath tubs and showers and utilize old shells, bottles and ceramic pieces.
There’s a nice pool in a shady area overlooking the ocean, and Dougie’s Bar is a legendary spot next to the pool with killer rum punch and the famous Dougie, who’s been manning the blender for a few decades and is an engaging guy with a big smile.
“The Jamaican people are our biggest asset,” Bartlett agreed, citing folks like Dougie and the legendary Watson, who greets everyone from commoners to Canadian prime ministers at Half Moon, a Rock Resort, outside Montego Bay (and one of my favourite spots on the island).
There’s a great, waterfront restaurant next door called Jack Spratt’s, which is great for pizza or a snack. And you can take a boat from Jake’s to the funky Pelican Bar, which is built of driftwood and other old pieces of stuff and rests on a reef a few hundred meters from the beach. It’s a throwback, goofy kind of place with writing on the walls and ceiling and mementoes left by Canadian hockey fans and such. But a ton of fun. Jake’s also has a lovely restaurant with great food and a beautiful spa.
“It’s a great area for what we call rustic luxury,” Bartlett said of Treasure Beach.
I haven’t been to Port Antonio, but Bartlett said tourism folks see it as a place for “family, relaxation and recuperation,” with an emphasis on health and wellness.
Bartlett said pillars of the country’s new tourism approach include new product, new markets (including an emphasis on bringing in folks from Asia via Toronto Pearson), new experiences, new partnerships and new investments. There’s also a focus on service, with even more hospitality training in order.
One area Bartlett and the government is exploring is improving the island’s shopping experience.
“We need more high-end shops, such as Gucci and Prada and Coach. We’re also adding new artisan villages in several parts of the country, including cruise ports, where people can come in and buy things made by local artisans. They’ll be able to come in in the morning and order something they like to be custom-made, then come back later in the day or later in the week to pick it up. They’ll be able to find authentic things they can’t find anywhere else.”
If done properly, it sounds like a great concept.
Another area Jamaica is looking at is knowledge-based tourism. Switzerland has done very well with the annual Davos Conference, and Vancouver has made a mark around the world with TED? Jamaica is looking to do similar conferences, but can offer beaches and sun on top of places to talk about ideas and the future of the planet.
“Why not have these kinds of meetings in Jamaica,” Bartlett said. “A couple years from now we could have people talking about ‘The Treaty of Montego Bay’ or the ‘Montego Bay Accord.’”
Jamaica will host a “Tourism Outlook Seminar” in MoBay Dec. 6-8, he said.
Some 2,000 new rooms are being added this year around the island, and there are plans for another 5,000 in the next five to ten years.
In addition to enjoying Half Moon and Jake’s, I had a nice visit a couple years to the Hyatt Ziva Resort Rose Hall and to the Sandals in Ocho Rios, which has a lovely beach and a youthful vibe that older folks also can enjoy. There are several nice restaurants on the grounds, including a traditional Jamaican jerk chicken shack, and also private units with butlers.
“Some folks order room service at their private villas and hardly ever leave,” one Sandals officials told me during my stay. “But most folks like to use the beach and all our facilities.”
Sandals is close to the Dunn’s River Falls and also the Martha Brae river rafts, which are tranquil and a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon in Jamaica.
My favourite stop on my last visit was the Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios; a lovely old-style place with a big lawn for croquet, a lovely spa tucked into the trees near the water and one of Jamaica’s best beaches.