Jamaica Ministry of Tourism's Wykeham McNeill

By Gay Nagle Myers
Wykeham McNeillJamaica continues to hold its own in the marketplace, according to Wykeham McNeill, minister of tourism and entertainment, with healthy visitor numbers, new hotels opening, new airlift and a "Bolt Bounce" stemming from Usain Bolt's gold medal victories at the Summer Olympics. During the recent annual Jamaica Product Exchange in Ocho Rios, Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers and McNeill discussed his first nine months in office and the challenges confronting Jamaica as it heads into the peak season, facing competition from numerous global destinations also wooing the leisure traveler.

Q: Jamaica is on a roll at a time when other Caribbean destinations continue to struggle with the effects of the global recession. What's your magic formula?

A:
Despite the current recessionary period, our growth remains robust. We have healthy airlift but continue to negotiate for more; developers and investors are returning; and there is a healthy demand for the destination. It's all about branding, marketing and continuing to build upon relationships with our travel partners. The U.S. remains the key focus, but we're not neglecting the potential that Latin America, Asia and Europe offer.

Q: Can you break down visitor stats and hotel development?

A:
We welcomed 1.4 million stayover visitors from January through September, 3% over the same period in 2011. We're on target to top 2011 totals by 3% overall.

Room inventory now stands at 30,000 rooms, with 2,000 more coming on line in the next few years, including a 130-room Courtyard by Marriott in Kingston and a 232-room Riu Palace in Montego Bay. Fiesta plans to add 850 rooms at the Grand Palladium complex in Hanover, the former Breezes Trelawny was acquired by Canadian tour company Sunwing and will open later this year. Karisma Hotels & Resorts will open the all-inclusive Seashore Bay Beach Resort in Negril, the former Beaches Sandy Bay, which had operated as a Sandals until Aug. 31. Trident Castle & Hotel in Portland is under renovation and could open by mid-December, and Bahia Principe has 70 rooms under construction.

Q: How's the cruise situation?

A:
Numbers are encouraging. Through August, cruise arrivals topped more than 934,000 passengers, up 33.9% over the same period in 2011. Ports in Falmouth and Montego Bay posted increases. Ocho Rios arrivals were flat: Several lines shifted calls to Falmouth last year. Ocho needs some structural changes, and we have plans to do that. It's got superb attractions within 20 minutes of the port. We also need to up the cruise spend by passengers at all ports.

Q: Jamaica increased its airline arrival tax in August and implemented a new accommodations tax in September. Any impact from those taxes?

A:
You never want to put taxes on an industry, but Jamaica needs to increase revenue and cut debt. These taxes are just one part of an overall package affecting all sectors in Jamaica. We've not seen any impact from the additional $20 arrival tax. The hotel tax works on a formula of $4 per room, per night for hotels over 100 rooms, $2 for hotels with 50 to 100 rooms and $1 for those under 50. It remains to be seen what, if any, impact this will have on bookings.

Q: What's your favorite part of this job?

A:
Product development and coming up with new ideas to develop linkages tying tourism to all things Jamaican, from our cuisine to our music, crafts, sports, traditions, history, crafts and the people. I'm fired up with ideas. I also want to learn how to cook jerk.

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