Edmund Bartlett returned to the Jamaica tourism minister’s position in March 2016, having last held the post in 2011 during the administration of former prime minister Bruce Golding. Throughout the past year he traveled far and wide to promote Jamaica’s thriving tourism business, with the expressed goal of doubling the country’s steady but slow visitor growth this decade.
In contrast with his previous tenure, this time Bartlett holds office during a period of relative global economic stability. Moreover despite some challenges, Caribbean destinations are poised to achieve significant visitor growth in the years to come, with developers planning numerous hotel and resort projects and airlines expanding flights across the region.
We spoke recently with Minister Bartlett to discuss his goals at the outset of the second year of his second campaign as Jamaica’s tourism minister.
TravelPulse: Is Jamaica close to reaching your earlier-stated goal of five million annual visitors by 2020?
Edmund Bartlett: We are still tabulating 2016 results and it appears I may not make my goal of four million arrivals for 2016, but I think we are very close to 3.9 million for the year. I really anticipated we could break through to four million this year and then move on toward another million in the next three years. But we are continuing our efforts, and as we are going to have another 50,000 or so hotel rooms in the next three years that at least will bring us to the capacity needed to accommodate five million visitors three years from now.
TP: You were conspicuous in 2016 in your willingness to travel widely and meet with global trade and tourism officials to promote Jamaican tourism. Does it take that kind of effort to generate visitor growth?
EB: What it does indicate is that driving growth is a multi-faceted challenge because tourism is a series of moving parts that must converge to deliver the experiences for which people from all over the world travel. Our activities have to reflect this. So it’s not about staying in Jamaica, it’s about finding the market, building the partnerships and seeking the investment. It’s about building new products and pitching new ideas that will excite and bring attractions to your area. This is what we have to do and this is what we did.
TP: How was the government able to come to an agreement with Airbnb in 2016?
EB: The fact is that tourism is a constantly moving, uncertain entity. You have to keep nimble and be adaptive. That way you can respond to any form that the market takes. So we are responding to the disruptions in the market – the Airbnb’s and Ubers, etc. We are making a destination for everyone. We have to look at how these innovations impact existing partners and how we need to prepare for the future.
TP: Jamaica is a country of tremendous diversity that many travelers are just beginning to fully appreciate. How are you working to promote the country’s wide variety of natural, cultural and historic attractions?
EB: Our Tourism Linkages Council is the umbrella organization that seeks to bring into a cohesive whole the various experiential areas we have. Jamaica’s attractions are all around, from natural attractions like our beautiful beaches and rivers and the Blue and John Crow Mountains to man-made attractions like our great golf courses. We have two hot springs that are par with the very best in the world. Then our food, our gastronomy is going to be a major focus from 2017 onward. Jamaica has some of the finest cuisine and we think we can out-do most of our competition in terms of our food presentation and presenting the dining experience.
TP: What other areas are you focusing on to achieve visitor growth?
EB: Interestingly cruise tourism is taking off in Jamaica very strongly. This year we are poised to break all records with cruise arrivals, with three of the largest vessels ever to visit our nation this season. We think our ports are a very important part of our tourism infrastructure and growth.
Jamaica also has to build up shopping in a stronger way. That is what is driving a lot of the spending; some of our new markets like China desire a rich shopping experience. So you will see a lot more of a focused effort in the area of retail shopping. We also want to focus on Millennials through the area of “voluntourism,” marathons and other events that bring people together and have a component of public good.
In addition we are going to be re-furbishing and re-conditioning the Montego Bay Convention Center, the largest in the English-speaking Caribbean, as a key fulcrum around which the MICE business and knowledge-based tourism activities will revolve. We plan to host more meetings, conventions, exhibitions and incentive activities.
TP: Your last tenure as tourism minister came in the midst of the global economic crisis. How do you compare the challenges of that time with those you face today?
EB: You put your finger on it in terms of the difference of the period. The first year for me, what I call the first incarnation, was about consolidation and managing a crisis. During the worst economic crisis in years we wanted to consolidate our position and gain market-share.
We were able to also have growth in part because we were able to drive arrivals from the only destination showing growth at the time, which was Canada. Now after the recession, this is the time for expansion. If you gain market-share during a recession, when the rebound occurs you should have exponential growth.
TP: What are your expectations for tourism growth for Jamaica and the wider Caribbean market in 2017?
EB: I’m seeing a re-invigorated Caribbean, a new Caribbean is emerging. The development of Cuba as a player will enhance that. The Caribbean has gone through a period when the growth has been anemic but I’m feeling renewal in a number of areas. New products are emerging in a number of the islands and exciting new innovations are being developed across the region.
The challenge for the region remains air connectivity. We rely heavily on air transport to move our visitors from destination to destination. So we have to look at some new considerations. We have to look at creating a new architecture in aviation for the region. I think that the prospect of multi-destination tourism is perhaps the strongest arrangement the Caribbean can seek to meet the demand from new markets for air connectivity.