Airlift priority for Jamaica

By Gay Nagle Myers
OCHO RIOS, Jamaica — The island is in good shape for the upcoming winter season, with advance bookings at many resorts pacing ahead of a year ago at this time.

"I'm confident we'll beat our arrival numbers of 2011, which totaled 1.95 million stopover visitors," said Wykeham McNeill, minister of tourism and entertainment. "Right now, the fall is the fall, traditionally a slow time, and we're aware that arrivals from U.S. markets will be affected by the presidential elections, with people putting off travel or decisions to travel until they know the outcome."

Jamaica is intensifying promotional efforts to continue to court investors and developers and to negotiate more airlift.

McNeill touched upon a number of issues during the recent Jamaica Product Exchange, the annual trade show that gathers buyers, suppliers and local tourism interests with overseas tourism players. More than 600 delegates assembled here at the Sunset Jamaica Grande for the 22nd staging of the show.

Wykeham McNeillSupplier delegates totaled 370, including hoteliers, operators of attractions and airline and ground transportation companies. More than 100 tour operator delegates from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. also attended, as well as representatives from emerging markets that Jamaica is targeting, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

Jamaica has adequate airlift "to enable us to achieve our performance targets, but we continue with negotiations that will further improve our level of comfort in this regard," McNeill said.

American Airlines has maintained lift out of the U.S., especially from New York, McNeill said. Despite the airline's recent spate of delayed and canceled flights tied to its bankruptcy and a labor dispute, McNeill described the carrier as a "strong partner."

From the U.S. market, Jamaica will have an additional 7,200 seats for the 2012-2013 season, up 1% over the last winter season.

New flights include a daily nonstop from New York Kennedy to Montego Bay on Delta, starting Dec. 15; JetBlue twice-daily seasonal service from Fort Lauderdale to Kingston; and a fourth daily US Airways flight from Charlotte.

Jamaica is pleased with 2012 cruise arrival increases in Falmouth and Montego Bay and is readying a new branding program for Ocho Rios, where cruise traffic is flat due to several lines relocating to Falmouth.

Under the theme "Where Eden Meets the Ocean," the Ocho Rios rebranding will emphasize "the major attractions that lie just a short distance from the pier," McNeill said.

The town has been criticized for harassment of visitors as well as for its general state of disrepair.

"Stakeholders must come to an agreement about what needs to be done and where the funding will come from," he said.

One of McNeill's actions since taking office in January has been the reinstatement of advisory boards in each of Jamaica's six key tourist regions.

"Each board reports to me; each has a board of directors and representatives from all segments of the industry to determine what's needed, what the priorities are and what the anticipated costs will be," he said.

Jamaica needs to cut its debt and increase revenue across the board, said McNeill, who pointed to the ongoing gambling initiative as one way to boost revenue. The gaming issue has been on the table since it was first proposed by former Prime Minister Bruce Golding in April 2008.

For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.  
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