A newsletter from the Jamaica Tourist Board to keep you up-to-speed on island happenings.
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Burnishing the Brand
Tourism setbacks create a game-changing challenge for Jamaica
By Mark Rogers
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There was once a bestselling book titled, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” This title could also describe the challenges facing Jamaica tourism over the past month. Jamaica was still celebrating 2009’s visitor arrivals figures showing 3.6 percent growth - in a year when most islands were south of zero - when deadly protests in Kingston seized the world’s attention. It didn’t matter that the violence was contained in a very small section of Kingston; the damage was done and the media attention served to instantly thrust a stick into the spokes of Jamaica’s tourism.

The heart of the problem was a dispute between the U.S. and Jamaica over the extradition of gang kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who had been indicted on drug and gun charges in New York City. When Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, agreed to Coke being extradited, things got ugly and police locked horns with Coke’s thugs in the streets of West Kingston’s Tivoli Gardens.

On June 22, Coke was captured in a police dragnet in St Catherine. Coke had been on the run for over a month, in which time the reward on his head grew from $1.2 million to $5 million.

“Tourism is significantly damaged, because we have received media coverage that we never bargained for,” said Wayne Cummings, president of the Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association. “Although we (the JHTA) think that business on the books for non-Kingston hotels is strong at this time, fall will be weak for us, because people are making short window decisions.” Cummings observed that the effect on Kingston hotels was immediate. “They took the brunt of it,” he said. “Occupancy fell to almost empty. Presently we have 35 to 40 percent occupancy in Kingston, although it should be closer to 65 percent right now.”

“Normally we’d be full; instead we’re 35 percent down,” said Denise Williams, sales manager, Spanish Court Hotel, which in June celebrated its first year of being open. “There were cancellations, but we kept in close touch with the travel agents we work with and we monitored the situation closely.”

All of this has had an instant impact on Jamaica’s tourism prospects for 2010. Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, in an interview with the Jamaica newspaper The Gleaner, predicted the tourism sector is in danger of losing up to $350 million this year.

Positive Action
The Jamaica tourism community can be commended for not sticking their collective heads in the sand – they know they have a problem. But they also have the energy and experience to meet the problem head on with a variety of positive initiatives directed at both consumers and travel agents. “Everyone is encouraged,” said John Lynch, director of tourism and chairman, Jamaica Tourist Board. “Jamaica has done it before and we’ll do it again.”

“We’re looking on building on what the brand represents,” said David L. Shields, deputy director of tourism, marketing, Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB). “We’ll present the positive attributes of the brand – the Jamaica you know and love. We want to reassure our repeat visitors that the brand’s values are consistent.”

Jamaica Connection David Shields
Shields is also enthusiastic about upcoming JTB travel agent initiatives. There’s never been a better time for agents to brush up on the island and see it for themselves. The JTB is a great believer in word-of mouth recommendations – the kind that well-traveled agents can make to their clients. By the end of the year the JTB will be bringing 3,000 agents to the island on fams; 60 percent of these agents will be from the U.S. Agents can expect to see fam dates scheduled for the end of August and through September and October.

John Lynch also wants travel agents to get ready for a variety of appealing value-added promotions from the island’s hoteliers. These will include such perks as free spa visits, complimentary rounds of golf, room and suite upgrades and restaurant credits. Wayne Cummings agreed that agents can expect to see value-added promotions from hotels and resorts, although he warned, “You have to be careful about discounting rates.” For a video clip of the JTB team in action inNew York City during Caribbean Week, click here.

Keepin’ it Real
One of the most frustrating elements of the negative attention is a lack of knowledge about the geography of Jamaica. The violence is far away from the island’s resort areas. Kingston, the island’s capital, lies on the southeastern coast of the island, while the major resort areas of Negril, Montego Bay, and Ocho Rios are on the north shore. For example, Montego Bay is 112 miles from Kingston, a four-hour drive by car.

“All is quiet on the north coast,” reported Peter Fraser, general manager, Royal Plantation Ocho Rios. “We didn’t have any cancellations, but we did receive a lot of emails from repeat guests who had already booked, seeking reassurance. I heard from another Jamaica Connection Peter Fraserhotelier that some guests were deferring their bookings, in other words, instead of vacationing in July they deferred their travel to August.” In Fraser’s opinion, the violence in Kingston was sensationalized by the media and he refers to Dudus as “a one-day wonder.”

Gene and Abby, a couple from North Carolina, were staying at Sandals Montego Bay while the crisis was still simmering. “We were on our honeymoon and we were coming regardless of the violence in Kingston,” said Abby. “It did worry us and we decided not to venture too far from the resort. For example we took the shuttle to the Hip Strip in MoBay but we only stayed for a short time and took the first shuttle back to the resort.”

Wayne Cummings does see a silver lining in the clouds over Jamaica. “There are great opportunities here,” he said. “The tide is turning on crime in general. Civil society has stood up to the government and said we want action against crime. We must get out the message to visitors that as beautiful as Jamaica is, you’re also safe.”

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