If the recovery of its tourism industry were a race, Jamaica has bolted from the blocks.
Puns aside, Jamaica’s tourism numbers for 2023 have not just been impressive, it is on course to be record-shattering.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jamaica enjoyed the best tourism revenue year in 2019, but at the Jamaican Product Exchange (JAPEX) Expo in Montego Bay last week, it was confirmed that 2019’s tourism revenues had already been dwarfed with an entire quarter of the year left.
“Jamaica has been able to say to the world: Yes, we have recovered and we have recovered beyond 2019. And this morning, we are one of the few two countries in the world that could truly say that in two years we’ve moved from zero, as far as the economy is concerned, to be now known as the hero of the economy,” said Jamaica’s Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett at JAPEX’s media breakfast on Tuesday at the Jewel Grande Montego Bay Resort & Spa.
“Tourism’s growth in the last nine quarters has been phenomenal and the country’s economic growth has equally been phenomenal. We didn’t quite go to zero in terms of the overall economy and tourism is the only sector that really went to zero,’ he added, pointing to the fact that most hotels, restaurants and other attractions had been closed on the island as a result of pandemic.
Jamaica partially reopened the tourism sector in a restricted manner in 2020, with tourist access allowed only to the resilient corridors, which centred around destinations like Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril and select tourist areas in Port Antonio and Kingston.
However the government reopened the sector in a more comprehensive manner in July 2021 and the country has emerged as one of the fastest recovering destinations post-COVID as a result.
The recovery has been so impressive, Barlett explained that the Government’s plan to receive 5 million visitors and US$5 billion in revenue from tourism by 2025, which seemed dead in the water during the pandemic, is now firmly back in sight.
In an interview with the Business Guardian at the JAPEX Expo, Bartlett said the buy-in from the people of Jamaica during this trying period, proved to be key to the island’s success.
“The secret to our success is the people, the people, the people, the people. And the fact that we’ve been able to get a level of collaboration and a sort of unity like we’ve never seen in tourism in our history. All of that collaborative effort is what has culminated in a kind of outcome that is starting back from zero in 2021 and today, we are approaching 4 million visitors and earning over US$4 billion. Unbelievable so I really want to congratulate the people of Jamaica, all the partners who have made this possible,” said Bartlett.
Significantly, this turnaround has been achieved with Jamaica not receiving visitors from one of its more traditional markets–Canada. The Jamaican government, however, had been hard at work to welcome back some of its familiar visitors sooner rather than later.
At the media breakfast, Bartlett announced that Jamaica had signed a deal with Canada Jetlines, with the low-cost airline set to offer service to and from Toronto and Montego Bay from November 5.
That deal, Barlett said, was geared towards re-igniting the connection with that market.
“Recovery from the second largest market for us (which is) Canada was a little slower than the rest, because Canada was among the last destinations to open. But during the period when we were in COVID, we were still talking because we had a sense that Jamaica remained a strong and positive destination for the Canadians.
“So we had those discussions and it came together very quickly. Today, we’re announcing two flights a week, which is almost unreal, as well, in that most times one flight, but this one, two flights a week is very significant. But we’ll get to four or five flights in short order,” he said.
However, in the absence of visitors from the Canadian market, Jamaica has seen a shift in terms of visitors to the island, with the Minister once again noting that the increased number of African-American visitors to the island has not just improved the numbers of visitors, but the revenue brought into the island.
“I must tell you, there’s been a little demographic shift in the sense that there are far more Afro-Americans coming to Jamaica than previously. And they have been big spenders. And that’s a good thing. So the ADR (average daily rate) has shot up since COVID. And I think it has been supported greatly by this new demographic the Afro-Americans who have come to this country,” said Bartlett.
This disclosure was supported by the Destination Update provided by Jamaica Tourism Board director, Donovan White, on the first day of JAPEX, which revealed that in 2022, visits had lengthened to just over eight days while daily spending had increased to US$183 a day.
Indeed, the Business Guardian encountered a couple vacationing from Atlanta, while taking the raft tour at the Chukka Ocean Outpost at Sandy Bay, while another group of African-American women took that tour and converged at the resort to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday.
Tourism workers at Montego Bay noted that apart from JAPEX, this was considered a lull period before the winter season. However they still acknowledged higher than usual traffic for this period.
Despite these surges, Jamaica is not resting on their laurels and indeed is pushing for more.
Bartlett confirmed that Canada Jetlines’s addition, as well as increased seats from the US, had raised the number of flight seats expected for the fall and winter season to 1.1 million.
“That came together for the expansion of airlift in the United States. We have 140,000 more seats out of the US alone for this fall. And so when we add some new flights that are coming out of Canada, between those two countries have accounted for the significant increase in the airline,” said Barlett, who also spoke of plans to attract visitors from India with West Indies legend Chris Gayle expected to play a role in that development.
The JAPEX conference, which was the first to feature visitors in person since 2019, notably included media and stakeholders from India for the first time.
Bartlett also stated that negotiations were underway with another famous Jamaican athlete, to promote Jamaica’s tourism push in Central and Eastern Europe while the island is also eyeing the Latin American market.
The planned $70 million runway expansion of Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport, as well as the addition of 8,000 rooms over the next two to five years, were also seen as priorities for the industry going forward,
However, Bartlett said Jamaica’s success was not meant to diminish the tourism push of the rest of the region.
“The last thing I want to say on that is that Jamaica’s recovery is not about competitiveness, it is about co-petitiveness, and we have to find a way to co-pete and to work with each other and to use the assets of each other to enhance the global good of tourism and the Caribbean,” said Bartlett.