Tue | Apr 16, 2024

G2023 | The year in tourism – A phoenix moment

Industry players on a high as tourism’s remarkable post-COVID recovery continues

Published:Sunday | January 7, 2024 | 12:12 AMJanet Silvera - Senior Gleaner Writer
Tourists staying at Sandals Properties in St Ann help to wash debris from baby turtles before releasing them into the sea at Gibraltar Beach in St Mary last month.
Tourists staying at Sandals Properties in St Ann help to wash debris from baby turtles before releasing them into the sea at Gibraltar Beach in St Mary last month.
Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett.
Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett.
Robin Russell, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association.
Robin Russell, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association.
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WESTERN BUREAU:

The year 2023 stands as a testament to the resilience and collaborative efforts that fuelled the remarkable recovery of tourism in Jamaica.

The strength of this recovery can be attributed to the robust collaboration between industry stakeholders and the Government, through the Ministry of Tourism.

During an interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett highlighted the pivotal partnerships forged with airlines, cruise lines, tour operators, and global allies. Jamaica’s role as a thought leader in various tourism sectors has significantly influenced the global perception of the destination, shaping it into a preferred choice for travellers worldwide, he said.

The industry was not merely recovering in 2023; it was thriving in the competitive marketplace that rebounded from the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. An atmosphere of excitement enveloped Jamaica as it surpassed its 2019 tourist arrival numbers, reporting an impressive four million stopover and cruise visitors in 2023, with earnings soaring to an impressive US$4.2 billion.

Bartlett, fuelled by this success, forecasts an even brighter future, projecting that Jamaica will welcome five million visitors by 2025, and a 10 per cent increase in 2024 to receiving 4.7 million.

This optimism is echoed by Robin Russell, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), who characterised the past year as “unprecedented”, labelling it as the year of “Recovery, Rebound, and Reconnection”.

Senator Janice Allen, the opposition spokesperson on tourism, lauded the return of rooms to the stock and acknowledged the continuous improvements made by resorts such as Sandals Dunn’s River, Beaches Negril, Grand Palladium, and Royalton Hideaway. However, she voiced concern about the sluggish recovery of the cruise sector, urging targeted efforts in 2024 to revitalise this crucial component of the tourism industry.

Up to September 2023, cruise tourism was projected to end the year 23 per cent below 2019, the island’s largest arrival year ever. Some 1.185 million were expected to visit the island’s shores last year, said Bartlett.

Allen also expressed concerns regarding the ongoing arrival processing issues at the main international airport, Sangster, which still plagues the overall experience for visitors to the island.

“This is something that must be addressed in the short term while the MBJ continues its medium and long-term expansion and improvement plans,” she argued.

There is greater need for seamless arrival processing, especially now that the online acceptance of immigration forms has gone into effect. Yet, there remains bungling in the airport, Allen said, noting that it is imperative that the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) works swiftly to make the changes so that airport passengers are not further frustrated.

Looking ahead to 2024, she stressed the need for intensified efforts in major events, suggesting the addition of sporting events to further boost arrivals and stimulate local economic spending.

She spoke of announcements of new developments to come, but was quick to point out that while she welcomes development, she is concerned that there continues to be one type – large all-inclusive hotels. There is a need to broaden the type of tourism development and also look at the supporting areas like attractions, she is suggesting.

“It is important, too, that as we develop, we work assiduously to minimise the impact on the environment, so I look forward in 2024 to see greater effort across the entire government for collaboration in development, especially as it relates to the impact on water supply, waste management, rivers, beaches and coral reefs, sensitive areas that are usually the first to be impacted as a result of development,” said Allen.

JHTA President Russell credited the resurgence of business travel, combined with pent-up demand for leisure travel, which have propelled record numbers of tourists to Jamaica.

In addition to these noteworthy achievements, 2023 saw the JHTA, in collaboration with the Jamaica Tourist Board, successfully staging the annual industry marketplace, the Jamaica Product Exchange in Montego Bay last September.

This event marked a significant step towards face-to-face reconnection with travel industry partners, setting the stage for future business growth, as highlighted by Russell.

The JHTA president expressed encouragement at various developments, including the expansion of the island’s airports and the increased number of carriers serving Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Kingston. He emphasised the positive impact of new toll roads and the expansion of the ground transportation network on both local residents and visiting guests.

Beyond infrastructure, Russell celebrated the culinary prowess of Jamaica, emphasising its role as a major differentiator. Collaboration between local farmers, creative chefs, and the hotel sector ensured that the Jamaican brand delivered a unique and authentic experience to visitors. He mentioned meaningful meetings between the JHTA and suppliers of Jamaica-grown food products, projecting continued growth and development in the hospitality and tourism industry.

However, amid these achievements, the industry faced a significant challenge in the form of a labour shortage. Allen highlighted the need for immediate attention to training, better working conditions, and improved benefits to address this pressing issue.

Looking towards the future, Bartlett anticipates robust tourism numbers translating into increased earnings.

He said that Prime Minister Andrew Holness has challenged the country to invest more in the supply side, strengthening linkages between tourism and other critical sectors of the economy.

Holness emphasised the need for the agricultural sector to produce more of the food required by the industry, urging the manufacturing sector to contribute to the production of essential items such as jams, jellies, chutneys, juices, and various liquors.

In the realm of entertainment, Holness called for the creation of more cultural products that visitors can enjoy at entertainment centres. Bartlett added that attractions should focus on providing a greater variety and a more experiential approach to making visits to Jamaica truly one-of-a-kind and highly desirable.

Bartlett envisions a comprehensive build-out to enhance the capacity to absorb tourism in its broadest sense. This involves strengthening road networks, exploring the possibility of an additional airport, establishing more cruise ports, and making substantial investments in human capital development.

The emphasis is on building higher and stronger credible training facilities that provide internationally recognised certifications. This, Bartlett believes, is crucial to improving the promotional capabilities of tourism workers locally and enhancing their value in the international market.

A pivotal aspect of the vision for 2024 is the transformation of the labour market within the tourism industry. This transformation is rooted in training initiatives and the establishment of stackable credentials within the workforce. Additionally, social development for workers is deemed essential, encompassing better housing conditions, improved medical facilities, and a robust pension arrangement.

Bartlett believes that these conditions will be critical in reshaping the labour market, allowing workers to move away from seasonal activities and into a 24/7 employment arrangement. As technology continues to redefine the tourism experience, workers must be equipped to manipulate new technologies provided by the Internet of Things he cautioned.

Bartlett aptly labels 2024 as the “Year of More”, signifying a year in which tourism must give more. This encompasses providing more value, more opportunities for workers, and more significant contributions to the Jamaican economy. The focus is on delivering an unparalleled experience for tourists while ensuring sustainable growth and prosperity for the industry. As Jamaica looks forward to a future marked by increased tourism numbers and earnings, the commitment is clear: the tourism industry in 2024 must be characterised by innovation, inclusivity, and an unwavering dedication to excellence.

janet.silvera@gleanerjm.com