Jamaica's Seaga seeks tourism investments

NEW YORK -- Ambitious hotel and port construction projects were at the top of his list as Jamaica's former prime minister, Edward Seaga, met last week in New York with prospective investors in the Jamaican economy.

Although Seaga is the opposition leader, he is projected to be returned to the prime minister's seat in the next election, which will be called this year or early next year. With that in mind, his party "wants to be prepared" with plans for boosting what has been a stagnant economy for the last decade, he said.

Besides upgrading the tourism infrastructure, Seaga said he wants to push tourism with a government promotional budget of $34 million, double the current $17 million, he said.

He said Jamaica added 7,000 rooms in the last 10 years, but he hopes to add another 10,000 rooms in seven years.

Also on the former prime minister's list is a plan to establish a free port in Kingston harbor, something that would serve several business purposes, including tourism. He envisions the creation of a "massive inbound shopping complex" at the new port and sees nearby Port Royal as a prime attraction for visitors.

Just south of Kingston, Port Royal was a vibrant trading capital and pirate headquarters during the late 17th century before an earthquake sunk two-thirds of the city in 1692.

The "richest and wickedest city in the world" is the focus of a plan to develop it as an attraction similar to Williamsburg in Virginia. The plan includes museums, shops, taverns, restaurants, theaters and an underwater structure that would enable visitors to view the sunken section of the city.

He said the port project would provide employment in Kingston, the place where it is most needed, and have the important side benefit of reducing crime where it is the worst.

It is crime that scares visitors away from the capital city although tourists are almost never the victims, he said.

Seaga said tourism growth has been at about 2% in recent years, but he wants to get back to the growth rate of 10% to 12% of more than a decade ago. He said hotel occupancies have been at about 58%, but he wants to get that up to 70% for all hotels, including the new ones he envisions.

In calling for stepped-up promotional funding, he said the current government has not done enough advertising or working with partners in travel, such as tour operators.

In response to a question about competing with Cuba once the U.S. government lifts sanctions, Seaga said, "That bothers everyone," but he said Jamaica is better positioned than other destinations to deal with the challenge.

For one thing, he said, he expects to see packages aimed at Europeans that combine a week in Cuba with a week in Jamaica, "good for offsetting possible damage."

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