What a difference a road makes. In this case, it's Highway 2000: The new, 140-mile tollway connecting Kingston, Jamaica on the island's south coast with the resort areas of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay on the north coast.
“This is a game-changer for Jamaica,” said Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett at the recent Japex travel conference in Montego Bay.
Bartlett said the highway was more than a timesaver for drivers. "It offers opportunities for travelers, businesses and locals to access key areas of Jamaica in a short time and opens up this island to attractions and tours that have not been not previously marketed."
The highway, built by the China Harbour Engineering Co. for $730 million, was constructed in phases. The first segment linked Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, and the most recent, completed in March, connects the capital of Kingston with Ocho Rios.
Tourism officials from Kingston who attended Japex reported a drive time of about two hours to Montego Bay, compared with the six-plus hours on the old road, which flooded in rainstorms and was often blocked by heavy trucks, which frequently broke down en route.
Already there are plans for three hotels totaling 2,400 rooms to be built along the highway corridor, according to Bartlett.
But while the minister was pleased with Highway 2000 and the tourism opportunities to reposition Jamaica with a broader array of attractions, he was less than pleased with the “anemic visitor growth” in 2015.
“We welcomed 2.1 million stayover visitors, a gain of 2.1%," he said. "Those numbers don't move the scales at all, and the average Jamaican doesn't feel the benefits from this.
"Higher visitor arrivals and higher visitor spending are my goals as minister of tourism." (Bartlett formerly held this post from 2007 to 2011.) The goals include tapping into new markets, developing new products, promoting investment, building new partnerships and developing human capital.
“The South American market remains a frontier for us to conquer; the Eastern European market has not come up to the level we want and represents another frontier; visitor arrivals from North America were 1.7 million in 2015 -- I am confident we can attract in excess of two million,” he said.
Bartlett also plans to ramp up efforts to expand into health and wellness, gastronomy and shopping to attract more visitors and generate additional revenues.
“We have to work on voluntourism opportunities," he added. "Travelers today want a vacation with experience, and we need programs that offer these opportunities."
Regarding the Zika virus, Bartlett called it “a development we have to watch and be proactive. We have developed a full program to deal with it, and the incidence of cases has been minimal to date.”