My Jamaica network on lookout for 'explorers'

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NEW YORK -- Although the scope of many U.S. tourists' experiences of Jamaica is limited to the confines of its gated, all-inclusive resorts, the new My Jamaica marketing network of 82 smaller island accommodations, restaurants, tour operators and attractions aims to broaden those visitors' horizons.

My Jamaica coordinator Imani Duncan, who helped launch the network at the Adventures in Travel Expo held here earlier this month, said it's targeted at the lucrative "explorer" -- or adventure, nature and cultural traveler -- market, which is made up of vacationers who want to get to know a destination in depth while supporting sustainable tourism efforts.

"Jamaica has some incredible products, with many interesting things to do for that growing market segment," said Duncan, who was hired last year along with her employer, the Boston-based consultancy OTF Group, by the Jamaica Exporters Association to identify and organize potential high-growth areas -- such as adventure travel -- in the island's economy.

"But each supplier company was so small that the cost of trying to penetrate that market individually was prohibitive," Duncan said, so the firms banded together and derived the My Jamaica concept.

A sampling of the network's membership includes:

• Accommodations: Strawberry Hill; Round Hill Hotel and Villas; Jake's Village; and the Courtleigh Hotel and Suites.

• Tour operators: Caribe Vacations; Our Story Tours; Great Vacations; and Tropical Tours.

A tree-top jungle canopy tour is offered by Chukka Adventure Tours, which is a founding member of the new My Jamaica network of smaller tourism companies. • Adventure Operators: Chukka Adventure Tours; Jamaica Whitewater Expeditions; Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours.

• Attractions/Events: Appleton Estate Rum Tours; Jungle Negril; Reggae Sumfest; Forest Park; and Dolphin Cove.

• Restaurants: The Verandah; Restaurant Mille Fleurs; Gap Cafe; Day-O Plantation Restaurant and Bar.

• Transport: Air Jamaica; Island Car Rental.

My Jamaica's tour product, which combines elements from all its supplier members, offers "an integrated experience of Jamaica," Duncan said.

The network's Web site, at www.explorejamaica.org, and call center at (800) JAMAICA will peddle packaged and customized vacation products from member tour operators -- all commissionable to U.S. travel agents at the standard 10% rate.

"We found through market research a desire among agents in the U.S. and the U.K. for proper destination-management company partners that can ensure a quality vacation experience for their clients," said Duncan. "Our members serve as local point people for agents to call."

My Jamaica vacation programs fall into three categories:

• Jamaica Naturally, which includes soft-adventure products such as hiking, biking, bird-watching and spelunking.

• Taste of Jamaica, with a focus on native culinary traditions as well as local folk art.

• Roots Jamaica, which offers insight into the island's rich cultural fabric, from dance halls and reggae clubs to historical Great House plantation manors.

"When a country this size makes as big a cultural impact on the world as Jamaica has, for people to go there and have no clue is ridiculous," Duncan said.

Many member operators offer tours combining elements of two or more categories; for example, Caribe Vacations' Ins and Outs of Jamaica tour blends cave exploring and hiking (from Jamaica Naturally) with jerk-chicken stand tastings and reggae bar evenings (like Taste of Jamaica).

Of course, the tours are just suggestions, said Duncan.

"The idea is that, although we give examples of packages, agents can call operators and they'll customize something," she said.

In short, My Jamaica's half- and full-day guided tours are combined with a variety of accommodations and activities designed to help clients become "part of the destination" rather than observers "on the outside," Duncan said.

But is intimacy with Jamaica -- considered, fairly or not, a dangerous destination by many -- a tough sell in the U.S.?

"You have to define whom you want to go after, and among the American population there's a group we call 'explorers' -- people who are more adventurous and know the world is uncertain," Duncan said.

"But we're aware too much uncertainty is not a good thing, so a key part of our program is our tour guides, who know where to go and where not to," she added. "They really open up Jamaica for travelers."

My Jamaica is partnering with the Jamaica Tourist Board and the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association -- venerable tourism organizations that Duncan said once perceived explorer travelers as "18-year-olds with backpacks and no money" -- to promote sustainable adventure tourism.

"We're aware that if we're trying to shift or reposition Jamaica as a culture-rich or nature-based destination, one group of companies with one brochure and one Web site is not going to do it," she said.

"Our idea is to cover all of Jamaica and have the best quality of products and services on the island to offer our visitors."

For more information, call (800) JAMAICA or visit www.explorejamaica.org.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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