JAPEX show gives Kingston its props

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KINGSTON, Jamaica -- The annual Jamaica Product Exchange (JAPEX) travel trade show was held here for the third time in eight years, in a sign local tourism players want to give the island's political, business and cultural capital its due and continue their efforts to promote the much-maligned city as a viable leisure destination.

The trade show was held in the city first in 1995 and again in 2000; the choice provoked mixed emotions from participants each time.

This year's JAPEX -- the premier meet-and-greet for the Jamaican travel industry -- attracted about 200 participants to Kingston from May 4 to 6.

"Kingston is always a controversial choice when you talk to hoteliers, and tour operators also seem slightly disoriented when they hear it is the venue," said Josef Forstmayr, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), which co-organized JAPEX 2003 with the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB).

But Forstmayr said the negative stereotypes associated with Kingston -- namely high crime, low quality of life, poor infrastructure and occasional civil unrest -- are a bit overblown and overshadow some positives.

"The city's not a leisure market and isn't likely to become one," he said. "But it is the English Caribbean's most vibrant center for sports, religion, international organizations and business and because of that it deserves to be highlighted."

Still, the JTB presses on with marketing Kingston -- "the heartbeat of Jamaica" -- as a culture, sports and dining destination, alongside popular resort areas such as Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.

And there's some cause for its persistence: As a once-great colonial port and modern metropolis of 525,000, Kingston is endowed with myriad cultural and historical attractions.

Top city-center draws include the National Gallery of Jamaica, with vast holdings of local art; Hope Gardens, with its orchid house and amusement park; and the Bob Marley Museum.

Attractions farther afield range from Lime Cay beaches to the ruins of Port Royal, a pirate haven leveled in a 1694 earthquake, and coffee plantations in the Blue Mountains.

Confident Kingston hoteliers and other suppliers took pride of place -- both on the JAPEX show floor at the Hilton Kingston and in a marketing session for agents at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel.

Forstmayr of the JHTA was equally sure the Kingston suppliers belonged at the show.

"Kingston obviously creates its own negative public relations at times, which makes it difficult for Jamaica to market itself as a tropical paradise," he said. "But [visitor perceptions] of the city are often incorrect about the quality of life and feeling for living that people have in Kingston."

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