NEW YORK -- Jamaica's new government, headed by Prime Minister Bruce Golding, "will foster tourism investment opportunities aggressively and at unprecedented levels," according to Edmund Bartlett, the country's minister of tourism.

Bartlett addressed the Jamaican-American Chamber of Commerce here earlier this month.

Creative marketing, product development and investment, which Bartlett described as "the three pillars of Jamaica's tourism policy," will ensure that Jamaica has "the best product out there, coupled with a variety of experiences for our visitors."

In 2006, Jamaica set a record, topping 3 million stayover and cruise visitors (more than 2 million were from the U.S.). Visitors generated $2 billion worth of business. But Jamaica has not fared as well this year.

"We couldn't hold on to those gains this year," Bartlett said. "The first seven months saw a 10% to 12% decline in stayover business due to Mexico coming back fully on stream following the 2005 hurricanes. That, coupled with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requiring passports for air travelers re-entering the U.S., has set us back."

However, the picture did brighten in September with a 4.8% increase in visitors year over year.

The tourism minister envisions 5 million visitors per year by 2010: 3 million air arrivals and 2 million cruise passengers.

"Five million is the critical mass needed to drive up the level of investment that will bring heads to beds and open up new attractions," he said.

Attraction providers want a destination that draws at least 3 million stopover visitors a year before investing in a site, Bartlett explained.

He's hopeful, too, that the per capita earnings from cruise passengers, now calculated at $83 per day, and stayover visitors, now at $100 a day, can top $150 a day in both markets by the end of 2010.

Jamaica's tourism plans call for the redevelopment and redesign of six key resort areas on the island that "will complement and fit into the total picture of Jamaica," Bartlett said.

The government plans to establish a School of Hospitality in Montego Bay to train local youth in the tourism business, expand the airports and ports and have a hotel inventory of 75,000 rooms by 2015, with 35% of those rooms in the high-end, luxury category.

With that room inventory in place, gross earnings from tourism could reach $7 billion a year, he said.

Bartlett acknowledged, however, that the destination's reputation for crime has negatively affected the perception of Jamaica as a vacation option.

"Crime pervades our market, and we know that you in the U.S. know this," Bartlett said. "These perceptions will disappear once we acknowledge the problems and deal with them."

A $332,000 surveillance program that includes a mobile police station, more training for the police and cameras mounted in selected areas of Montego Bay "will send the message to drug dealers that we are watching, we will find them and we will prosecute them," he said.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected]

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