A decade of tourism change in Jamaica

Hotels and tourism facilities in the Caribbean have come a long way in the last ten years. So much so that a time traveller from the early 1990s, let alone one from any prior decade, would be surprised at what they might see and experience. Nowhere is this perhaps more so than in Jamaica.

This is particularly the case in relation to Jamaica’s North Coast but also to an extent in Kingston as well.

This is largely because successive governments working with investors have recognised the central place that tourism has in the economy and the consequential need to improve airports, roads, cruise ship ports and terminals and other tourism related infrastructure, if visitor numbers are to increase and their contribution to the economy is to grow. Equally as important has been the acceptance by both the industry and government that new investments were required in hotels and attractions; that the overall product experience needed to be improved; that better branding and promotion using new media was required; that traditional feeder markets were not enough to enable long term growth; and that airlift and promotional activity was required in new locations like Scandinavia, Russia and Brazil was required.

The clearest demonstration of how successful this policy has been is in the visible and dramatic changes that have taken place on the island’s North Coast over the last ten years.

Whether it is the renovation, extension and remodelling of Sangster International, reportedly now the busiest in the Caribbean, or the more welcoming approach taken by its immigration and customs officers, the visitor arrival and departure experience has improved dramatically. Although there is still more to be done for those who take taxis, a drive eastwards towards Ocho Rios demonstrates how fundamental the product improvement has been. Whether it is the highway itself, the Spanish hotels, the convention centre, the cruise port development at Falmouth, new attractions, or careful upgrades to beautiful historic properties like Half Moon, Jamaica and the industry has recognised and delivered change in a way that many other destinations in the region have not.

Moreover, the last decade has also seen dramatic improvements at Norman Manley airport, in the shape of new modern business hotels being constructed in Kingston, and the appearance of aspirational upscale properties such as GoldenEye on Oracabessa Bay.

The consequence is that not only is the island better prepared for the significant changes that are taking place in the way that travellers have come to view destinations, but Jamaica is coming to be seen as a ‘hot’ destination among higher spending North American and European visitors.

That said there is much more to be done.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), investment in the Caribbean tourism sector will continue to increase. In a category that includes hotels, attractions and infrastructural upgrades or other projects that support the industry, the WTTC recently reported that it expects capital investment in the region’s product tourism to rise by 5.5 per cent in 2014 from the US$6.0bn recorded in 2013 and then by 3.5 per cent per annum to USS8.9bn by 2024.

Against this background, the challenge for Jamaica is to assess the changing nature of demand, accept that the profile of visitors is changing radically, that they want much more than sun and beaches, and then to encourage newer facilities and investors that relate to longer term market trends.

At one end of the spectrum this probably means more upscale hotels with international branding and possibly casinos, and at the other, to focus on wellness, spa facilities and relaxation in smaller up-scale boutique hotels. It suggests the need to find a way to finance the upgrading of some of the island’s tired older hotels, and means encouraging greater investment in attractions, nature reserves, tourist railways, rural experiences, and paradoxically up-scale shopping. It also suggests the need for a stronger debate about vernacular tourism: tourists’ ability to experience and feel the real Jamaica in careful ways and in small numbers that involve those in parts of the island where visitors are rare.