Last week, PAX had the opportunity to see and experience firsthand that Jamaica – dubbed the “Heartbeat of the World” – is open for business.
Like every tourist destination, Jamaica was hit hard by the pandemic. In March 2020, hotel occupancy plummeted from 90 to zero percent in ten days. By month-end, hotel doors were shuttered and 90 percent of staff was laid off.
But less than two years later, the island nation beloved by Canadians has bounced back and is looking forward to a promising future.
In a destination update held on Nov. 10 at Moon Palace Jamaica in Ocho Rios, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, the Hon. Edmund Bartlett, Director of Tourism at the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) Donovan White, and the President of Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association and Managing Director for Moon Palace Jamaica Clifton Reader provided details on how the resilient nation weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and is paving a clear path to recovery.
Jamaica is safe
“Tourism is open and ready in Jamaica,” said Reader.
Mr. Reader credits Jamaica’s Resilient Corridor as “the single most important part of the country’s tourism recovery.”
The Resilient Corridor stretches 294 kilometres across almost the entire north coast including Negril, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Port Antonio, as well as the southwest coast of the island.
It’s a designated section that has been designed to encourage safe tourism practices.
Within these zones, the country quickly implemented the Jamaica CARES program with a robust set of safety protocols in conjunction with health authorities towards tourism recovery.
This includes establishing a vaccination task force early on to administer vaccines to tourism workers and their families.
According to Minister Bartlett, Jamaica was the first Caribbean country to receive WHO-approved COVID vaccines, including 370,000 doses donated from Canada.
As of Nov. 7, it has administered one million vaccine doses, more than three weeks ahead of schedule.
Vaccination rates are averaging at 60 percent for tourism workers and the requirement of mask-wearing, physical distancing, sanitizing, and handwashing has resulted in “zero transmission from guest to staff or staff to guest at our hotels.”
With that, Mr. Reader said travel advisors that can confidently sell Jamaica as a safe destination.
Also, the COVID-19 positivity rate in hotels within the Resilient Corridor is 0.37%, Reader told PAX.
“Which is literally nothing,” he said. “It’s a 100 per cent sample size because every guest who departs would have been tested and given back their results.”
Moon Palace Jamaica, like many resorts in Jamaica, has designated rooms for travellers to stay in if, by chance, they do test positive for the COVID-19 virus. The policy at most resorts is to provide 14 nights of free (or heavily discounted) accommodations for those guests who are required to quarantine in destination.
However: “I can’t remember the last time I used one of my quarantine rooms,” Reader said.
“When you come to Jamaica, you can be assured that 60 per cent, or more, of the people you come into contact with will be vaccinated. And as we go along, that percentage will be higher.”
In other words, progress is happening.
“We are not in the tunnel, looking at the light,” Reader told PAX. “We are now outside of the tunnel.”
COVID testing is widely available
Currently, COVID-19 testing is available at 42 hotels and resorts for all Jamaicans and to visitors who require a test to return home.
For Canadians, the cost of a PCR test is $75 USD and the cost of an antigen test is as low as $17.50 USD.
“We care about the people who come into our country,” said Mr. White. “We spared no effort to ensure that everyone comes to Jamaica enjoys the best of what we have to offer, in the safest possible environment, in the most seamless way in and out of the destination.”
Aggressive product investment
Despite some adversities, Jamaica was able to maintain 90 percent of pre-pandemic planned projects, including the addition of 5,000 new hotel rooms over the next two years.
PAX visited the newest of these rooms at H10 Hotel’s Ocean Eden Bay in Montego Bay, which opened two weeks ago.
This 431-room, adults-only resort is adjacent to the family-friendly Ocean Coral Spring and offers suites with ocean view, pool view, and swim-up options.
There are five themed restaurants including a dinner theatre, and guests staying in the Privilege suites also have access to a gourmet restaurant, private beach, and other VIP amenities.
New construction also took place at the Half Moon Resort in Montego Bay, a project that added 57 new units, a saltwater infinity pool, a spa, and seven restaurants and bars make up Eclipse at Half Moon.
A 3,000 square-foot, two-bedroom Great House Ocean Suite is the highlight of this luxurious section.
Renovations also took place in the rooms and suites at the resort’s Founders Cove section.
Bullish approach to airline investment
After a cool start in winter 2021, Jamaica experienced an “absolutely blistering” summer of arrivals, said White.
By the end of October, air stopover arrivals reached 1.04 million, representing close to 48 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
With increased air capacity from Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Latin America, Jamaica is hoping to hit 1.2 million visitors for winter 2022, an increase of 17.5 percent from 2019.
Jamaica is also currently working with airlines in the UAE & Saudi Arabia to bring new airlift and eventual connectivity from African and Asian nations.
Canadian carriers are also preparing for the pent-up demand and the recent lifting of the international travel advisory.
Among the committed airlift to Montego Bay are:
From Toronto - five times weekly between November to April, and five times weekly to Kingston.
From Montreal - weekly between November and January, increasing to twice weekly between December 23rd and end of April.
From Toronto - two times weekly, and to Kingston three times weekly between Dec 23rd to end of April.
From Calgary - twice weekly.
From Winnipeg - once weekly.
From Toronto - three times weekly.
From Montreal - twice weekly.
From Montreal - three times weekly.
At least once weekly from Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, Moncton, Ottawa, St. John’s, Toronto, Winnipeg.
From Hamilton – once weekly.
From Toronto – twice weekly.
Cruising is back
Cruising officially returned with the arrival of Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Sunrise at Ocho Rios on Aug. 16.
Carnival has committed to more than 110 calls between November and April, which is a “massive number,” said White.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line returns to Falmouth this week, and in January 2022, Port Royal will officially become Jamaica’s fifth cruise port, giving cruise passengers direct access to Kingston for the first time.
The Port Authority of Jamaica is in full compliance with the regulations and protocols set forth by the CDC.
Employees at all cruise ports, attractions, as well as merchants, transportation and excursion operators who directly engage with cruise passengers are either 100 percent vaccinated or have received one dose.
The return of cruising is in fact driving the vaccination rates in Jamaica, with the vaccination rate for cruise-specific workers ranging from 85 to 100 percent.
Sun, sea & everything in between
Minister Bartlett compares Jamaica’s latest tourism recovery campaign to the Blue Ocean Strategy – by creating a demand for Jamaica’s unique and authentic attractions that showcase its unmatched beauty and culture.
This includes the Bond Trail – an upcoming microsite from visitjamaica.com that will offer visitors virtual and live discovery experiences about the sites where parts of Dr. No, Live and Let Die, and No Time to Die were filmed.
Sustainability and agri-tourism are also a strong focus here, connecting visitors with nature, farmers, plantations, and farm-to-table cuisine – some of which PAX saw during our visit.
At Stush in the Bush in St. Ann parish, Lisa and Christopher Binns share their love of sustainable farming, gourmet cuisine, and their off-grid lifestyle with visitors.
A self-professed “localvore,” Lisa marries farm-grown ingredients with her inventive take on Jamaican dishes to create a plant-based gastronomy of appetizer “grazing boards,” followed by a six-course meal.
In between, Christopher takes guests on a walk on the farm, pointing out various plants, fruits, and their medicinal properties.
Located roughly 30 minutes from Ocho Rios in St. Mary parish, Sun Valley Plantation welcomed us with freshly-cracked coconut water.
Our walking tour meandered down a trail lined with local fruit trees, plants, and grasses.
It’s a sensory and educational experience as we break open cocoa pods, smell the fragrant scents of lemongrass and other herbs as we learn about them.
The plantation is also home to several swallow-tail hummingbirds which are endemic to Jamaica.
Our tour concluded with a tasting of fruits in season and freshly-squeezed juices.
Visitors looking for a little more action can ascend 700 feet to Mystic Mountain via a chairlift that travels over the jungle canopy. Several thrill rides await at the top.
There is ziplining, a winding bobsled track, rock climbing, obstacles course, and the newly-launched, feet-dangling Ragga Ride which twists and turns while offering spectacular views of Ocho Rios and the ocean below.
"The future is definitely bright"
Since reopening in mid-June, demand for Jamaica has been steadily increasing.
Whites shared stats he recently received from the Amadeus IT Group, showing Jamaica leading the world in destination search, air seat capacity recovery, international air passenger arrivals, and GDS bookings.
Furthermore, hotel occupancy for the upcoming winter season is averaging at 65 percent, and 80 percent of workers in the hotel sector and 60 percent from attractions have been rehired.
Arrival numbers are also improving, averaging 5,500 per day in November, up from 4,500 per day in October.
Visitors are also staying longer and spending more, with average stays of eight days (up from 7.1) and an average spend of $180 USD per day (up from $169).
For the first time, destination earnings are beginning to outpace arrivals.
By the end of 2021, Jamaica is expected to see 1.5 million visitors and $1.9 billion USD in earnings.
At this pace, Minister Bartlett believes Jamaica is fully back on track to reach its forecast of 4.1 million visitors (including 1.6 million cruise guests) and earnings of 4.2 billion dollars by 2024, if not sooner.
As Mr. White remarked: "We believe we have a strong rebound in progress and the future is definitely bright.”
With files from Michael Pihach.