KINGSTON, Jamaica --- Unlocking new sources of investments and visitors are key factors to Jamaica's success in an "increasingly competitive and global marketplace," according to tourism minister Edmund Bartlett.

Jamaica posted a record 1.7 million visitors last year, despite the negative impact of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in the first half of 2007, and will add 3,000 new rooms to its accommodations inventory by year's end. However, the slowdown in the U.S. market, coupled with skyrocketing fuel prices, high air fares and the sagging U.S. dollar, has propelled the quest for emerging markets and new sources of revenue.

Bartlett said that "we will keep working to stay ahead of the pack by adding up-market accommodations and attractions and giving our visitors more reasons to come and then to return."

Several initiatives were unveiled during the 18th annual Jamaica Product Exchange (JAPEX), held last week in Kingston, for the first time in the city since 2003. The event matched 105 buyers from 70 companies with 300 Jamaican suppliers from 86 firms, up 15% over 2006.

Attendance included 11 Russian tour operators, who reported strong interest from clients seeking up-market packages.

More than 150 travel agents, including 130 from the U.S., also attended.

"Tourism is at the center of an economic thrust here that covers more than 30 ancillary industries," Bartlett said. "We need to spend time to see what is happening outside Jamaica so we can benefit from their best tourism practices, and tweak our product, to ensure that visitors come and then come again."

The three pillars upon which Jamaica's tourism growth hinges, according to the minister, are the traditional markets that include the U.S., the growth markets in Europe and the emerging markets in Asia.

Chinese visitors to Jamaica numbered 1,067 in 2007, up 10.3% over 2006, and more than 2,000 are expected this year. Bartlett said that getting flights from China to Jamaica was a main problem restricting the number of Chinese visitors to the island.

He's been in talks with two China-based carriers, which could carry visitors to the U.S. who could then transfer to Air Jamaica for flights to the island.

"Asian visitors are not the fly-and-flop market. The come for our music, attractions and culture," he said.

Bartlett said the country is also looking to reverse the 18% decline in the Japanese market and recently addressed the World Tourism and Travel Council's annual summit in Dubai on investment opportunities in Jamaica.

Initiatives include the government's recent approval of a policy to allow casino gambling, a renewed focus on the development of tourism on Jamaica's east end (centered around Port Antonio) and the promotion of new attractions that focus on the country's culture and folklore.

"My job is to increase arrivals and spending. Casinos will attract another level of visitors, but we have set the bar very high regarding the qualifications for casino operators, which are tied to hotel investments of at least $1.5 billion and more than 1,000 rooms each," Bartlett said.

The government recently greenlighted the first two casino operations, tied into the Solis the Palmyra Resort & Spa and the Harmony Cove developments, both located on Jamaica's resort-heavy north coast corridor between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.

By 2015, Jamaica's room inventory will top 45,000 rooms, Bartlett said. (For more hotel news from the conference, see "Hotel product continues to evolve in Jamaica.")

"We have the heads for beds. Now we have to get the visitors here and offer them experiences that they can't find elsewhere and that define Jamaica," Bartlett said.

New attractions and packages will focus on heritage, culture, sports, wellness and fitness. The inaugural Rose Hall Triathlon will take place Oct. 26 along the north coast and will coincide with a day-day health and wellness retreat.

In the attractions arena, the 100-acre Mystic Mountain theme park near Ocho Rios will offer a chairlift ride, a bobsled run and a zipline canopy tour when it opens this summer.

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

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