To fill its hotel inventory, Jamaica looks to religious tourism By Gay Nagle Myers / February 18, 2008 Share 1 -- With 3,000 new hotel rooms coming on line this year on top of its current inventory of 29,000 rooms, Jamaica is looking at new markets to bring heads to beds.One of those markets is religious tourism. And tapping into the religious tourism market is a natural move for Jamaica, which already attracts "a steady stream of visitors who come as part of a faith-based travel experience," according to Basil Smith, the country's director of tourism.Although Jamaica's data collection methods do not allow for identification of visitors by specialized markets, "we do know that the religious market is large, especially from the U.S., and its potential has not been tapped," Smith said.The global religious tourism market is an $18 billion-a-year market representing more than 300 million travelers, according to the Colorado-based World Religious Travel Association. The market is estimated at $10 billion in North America alone.The U.S. has more than 450,000 churches, 50,000 of which run organized travel programs for religious groups, Smith said. Jamaica has been active in hosting events pegged to the market, such as its annual Fun in the Son Christian festival in Ocho Rios, begun in 2002, that combines a two-day worship conference with evangelism, counseling and wellness tips that conclude with a street jam in Ocho Rios with singing, bands and family activities.Although this year's Fun in the Son festival will be folded into a larger evangelical conference taking place this fall in Jamaica, it will return as a stand-alone event in 2009."We have the rooms to accommodate our visitors; what we need are conference venues to handle the explosive growth predicted for the niche markets, such as faith-based travel and medical and health tourism," Smith said.He noted that the conference center in Kingston could handle up to 1,200 people; "but we need convention facilities in hotels and at venues on the north coast as well."New conference facilities have been tagged as a priority by Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica's minister of tourism, who is pushing hard for a 5,000-seat convention center in Montego Bay by 2009.Trelawny Stadium, east of Montego Bay, was completed in 2006 for the 2007 Cricket World Cup and can seat 10,000 in permanent seats and up to 20,000 more in temporary seating.While the stadium offers "a tremendous possibility as a possible site for conventions, we need to look at infrastructure that can be created to facilitate large conventions hosted by faith-based groups," according to Bartlett.Government officials recently met with a group of U.S. and Jamaican church leaders to discuss formalizing a structure for the destination's venture into the faith-based travel and tourism sector.A convenient destinationRev. Roy Notice of the New Testament Church in Mandeville, Jamaica, said that marketing Jamaica as a viable religious tourism destination was the way to go, especially with its proximity to the U.S."It is sometimes easier for religious organizations and churches to hold their retreats and conventions in Jamaica than to go to other states in the U.S.," Notice said.Jamaica has been a member of the Religious Conference Management Association in the U.S. for 17 years, Smith said; he described it as the largest such group of meeting planners of religious conferences.The organization is responsible for 17,000 conventions annually totaling 14.7 million attendees."This is a very well-organized association with an enormous data base of meeting planners. Working with this group helps us to raise our profile in this market," Smith said.It can also help fill rooms. The association was responsible for planning more than 15,000 religious events held outside the U.S. last year. Resort hotels attracted 11% of these gatherings, evenly divided between hotels up to 200 rooms and hotels with 200 rooms and up.To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.