Interview with Hon. Edmund Bartlett, Minister of Tourism

JAMAICA: Interview with Hon. Edmund Bartlett, Minister of Tourism


WF: You attended the leading international trade fair FITUR in Madrid in May. How did you enjoy the experience and did the event meet your expectations?

EB: It was a delightful experience from so many angles. First of all, everyone had had almost a year and a half with no physical contact with the outside world and there had certainly been no face-to-face engagements among tourism partners over that period. So, it was refreshing to see people meeting, talking and trading, face to face again. It was also a statement that global tourism and travel were bouncing back, as it was the first mega event as far as the tourism industry was concerned.
I had been to an event in Mexico a few days before, but that was the World Travel and Tourism Council Summit, which brought together political leaders, intellectuals, community and industry leaders. But that wasn’t a trade show; it wasn’t a situation where, for 3-4 days, you had thousands of people working, engaging in discussions, signing contracts, doing the business that we are accustomed to doing in tourism. To my mind, therefore, FITUR signalled the return of tourism and travel, and it was a highly significant event. I understand that some 50,000 people attended the event: people are interested in travelling again. It also helped make about statement that big cities being back, because Madrid was buzzing.
The expectations that I had of FITUR were fully met. There were excellent leadership events, and we were able to meet with tour operators, travel agents, airlines and investors; I had a large breakfast meeting with the current investors in Jamaica and those who anticipate coming to our country at a later date. Jamaica is just the right size to be a strong destination product and, in fact, we already are a good destination for most of North America, a lot of Europe, and now the Middle East and the Far East.
Overall, it was a very satisfying experience for me. FITUR, Spain and Madrid should be very proud that they were able to break the ice and restart the practice of face-to-face engagements in tourism.

WF: What safety protocols did Jamaica introduce to combat Covid-19?

EB: Jamaica is one of the leading destinations in terms of implementing very strong protocols. Within the first three months of the pandemic hitting, we had an 88-page document that introduced the most rigorous protocols, gained approval from the World Travel and Tourism Council and met the scientific standards at that time. We also had the framework to be able to generate the data needed to manage the risk. We knew that we didn’t have a solution to the pandemic, but we did have a series of safety protocols based on science and what science said would avoid, to a large extent, infection. Then we developed the tools to manage data outcomes and the pandemic. Overall, Jamaica has managed fairly well.
At the beginning, like everybody else, we closed our borders to reduce the flow of people from outside and contain the spread of the virus. We reopened our borders on 15 June 2020, and the good news is that we have never closed since. The problem with virus mutation is a considerable one. We are constantly alert to pivot, to change, to adjust our management in order to avoid the virus spreading.
I want to highlight one important point about Jamaica’s management of the pandemic: we are perhaps the only country that has maintained a resilient corridor. This is a bubble that we created, which is a geographical area that includes the coastline from Negril in the West to Port Antonio in the East, and it covers about 85% of Jamaica’s tourist experiences as well as tourism facilities, the hotels, attractions and so on. We were able to have visitors come in and stay in that corridor without losing the essence of the Jamaican experience.
We approved all the entities along the resilient corridor and certified them as Covid-compliant. Their employees were also fully trained. They had to ensure that all Covid-19 security infrastructure was in place, with technology such as touch-less sanitary applications. They also had to rearrange furnishings in common areas to allow for seating with low density, sanitise rooms regularly and treat in-room dining in a Covid-compliant way. We also set a ratio for the number of hotel guests to the size of a hotel. Because of how our hotels are configured, we were able to manage because their size allowed people to be well spaced, in compliance with our Covid measures.
We also utilised a lot of technology to enable seamlessness movement at our airports. We verified the health status of guests coming into the country, required proof of a viral test prior to entry, and then allowed guests to move into the resilient corridor. As a result of which, from June 2020 until roughly a year later, we welcomed just a little over 1 million visitors. That was a reasonable performance for a small country, and probably the best performance in the Caribbean.

WF: You are working with the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico and Panama on the creation of a Caribbean passport arrangement that allows for multi-destination tourism. Can you share more information on this passport and its benefits?

EB: The final program is being worked on. It is going to require some harmonisation of policies, particularly border-, transportation- and visa-related policies. Hopefully, we soon have an agreement on these things.
We think that the future for tourism, certainly for its recovery, is going to be based around “coopetition” instead of competition. By which I mean destinations cooperating with each other rather than seeking to differentiate in terms of geography, attractions or experiences. We think that the world is going to require multi-experiences and multi-destination experiences. The world is also going to demand opportunities based on more affordable arrangements. If you are coming from long-haul destinations – in our case, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe – you are going to want to have the benefit of a package that includes a number of destinations for a price that is affordable. Especially when people have 2-3-week holidays, when you come into the Caribbean, you might want to be able to skip from Cuba to Jamaica to Panama in a way that is affordable, with a package that makes it seamlessly easy. We’re looking at creating a new marketing opportunity, a customer-value proposition that is irresistible, properly priced and carefully structured to ensure that the visitor has the highest level of value.
The concept is a great one but the process is going to be involved. It is going to require a level of political will as well, because we are going to have to subjugate some of our own domestic and nationalistic policies into a broader tool, and we are going to have to recognise that that broader picture offers a greater opportunity. A single passport would be provided that would cover a number of things, one of which would be health status, because there would be health and safety protocols in place on all these islands. Once you comply, it’s in your passport and you go through borders seamlessly.
We also want to look at how to rationalise air space, so that it becomes cheaper for airlines to fly between these countries, with them paying one rate instead of paying a different rate for each country’s air space that they use. It may be that we don’t get full harmonisation of all these policies and protocols at one shot, but we know that we can begin on the basis of providing a single marketing package that enables a visitor to pay one price and have access to 3 or 4 countries.

WF: Spain remains the second-largest investor in Jamaica, with tourism as the main beneficiary of that. In that context, you have announced the goal of increasing Jamaica’s hotel room capacity to 25,000 by 2023. What progress has been made on that and is their room for further Spanish investment at the moment?

EB: We are well on track to achieve that objective by 2023. Up to 15,000 new rooms had already been established or were well on track before Covid hit. The pandemic changed many things, but the good news for Jamaica is that we have kept very nearly 80% of investment commitments. We have a number of Spanish investments that are coming on that represent nearly 4,000 rooms: Princess Resorts is responsible for 2,000 of those, Ocean by H10 is adding 500 rooms and Secrets from Marbella are adding 1,000. Spanish investment in Jamaica is increasing and, when this wave of investment is over, it may well be the single-largest investment block in the country.
An interesting aspect to the pandemic is that it has directed our aims and thoughts towards the supply side of tourism. We know that tourism has enormous potential to drive economic activities, but it also has an enormous propensity to leak foreign exchange due to imports if we are not able to supply the demand that tourism brings. We have to reset our purpose towards putting a stronger emphasis on the supply side: agricultural production, higher manufacturing and agro-processing to create more fruit juices, nectars, jams and jellies, for example; or having more hotel furnishings being produced locally. We need to recognise that we may not be able to provide the financial capital required for this ourselves and we may seek foreign investments. This is where our Spanish investors could be brought in, as they have great experience and understanding of supply chains, and they could work with local Jamaican partners to establish a supply logistics hub.
By doing that, Jamaica would not only be producing and supplying our local needs, but we could become regional suppliers. We could supply for the Spanish market in Mexico, Panama and all the other partner countries in our multi-destination arrangement. In that way, we will be expanding our local economy, creating more jobs and tourism would be seen as a real driver, an enabler, of economic growth. That’s what this reset of tourism must be. It must mean that investment must bring added value to the lives of the people of the country and the economy of the country.

WF: In recent years there has been an increase in the number of international flight routes coming into Jamaica. Do you have plans for further expansion?

EB: We’re an island, we’re not landlocked – we don’t have borders that you can drive through. You need to take a flight to Jamaica or you sail; there’s no other way. And flying is the option of choice: more than 80% of tourists coming to Jamaica come by air. So, it is incumbent on us to build partnerships with airlines and to enable more connectivity from cities and countries all over the world. Jamaica is now perhaps the most connected destination by air to the US, but we do have issues with Europe, Asia and other far-flung destinations. We are in the process of working this through with our airline partners, tour operators and travel agents who are critical to building capacity and air connectivity from these regions.

In order for a flight to be economical, around 75%-85% of its seating capacity has to be filled. You don’t make money if you have load factors much lower than that. Our coopetition concept is applicable to our airline partners, and then we try to then get travel agents and tour operators to cooperate and to build out the capacity to provide the airlift requirements. Significantly, we – the destination – could provide some marketing or we may decide that it is important to have a seat-support arrangement, so that whenever a plane flies, if it delivers a full load of passengers to us, we contribute. It is a process of bringing together all the key players to enable the movement of air traffic. We are excited about continuing that kind of collaboration with our airline partners in order to bring more flights into Jamaica and increase arrival numbers, which brings with it an increase in demand and, in turn, enables expansion, diversification and innovation in the tourism supply chain, which is important to us.

WF: How important is cruise home-porting to Jamaica?

EB: We think that countries that have multiple ports, like Jamaica, would be a good option for home-porting and Jamaica would also be ideal for establishing itineraries around the island itself. We’re encouraging smaller ships that have the ability to move seamlessly around the country. Home-porting offers an enormous opportunity for tourism’s involvement in the deeper local economy. Home-porting requires refuelling of the ships, which is locally done. The vessels also need to be provided with water, agricultural supplies, beverages and general things that passengers require when they are on board. Jamaica can insert itself into these supply chains of the cruise industry.

Then the other opportunity is for airlift activities, as the cruisers fly in to their start destination and then they either stay overnight on the island, so hotels are involved, or they are transported directly from the airport to the cruise terminals, so local transportation people are involved. The value of home-porting is much more extensive than port fees, which are applied to all cruise ships coming into a port. If ships come into a port for just 8 hours, a port fee is paid per number of passengers. The passengers may get off and go into the community, purchase goods, enjoy themselves and experience the local culture. Then they return to their ship and leave. With home-porting, that happens too, but there are other important sectors of earnings that the country can gain as well.

WF: Digital nomads are on the lookout for new and exciting destinations. Why would Jamaica appeal to them?

EB: Jamaica is a very well positioned country in the Caribbean and in the Americas. Geographically, we sit in the centre of the most important trading link between East and West, close to the Panama Canal, and we’re a great transshipment centre. The internet connectivity in Jamaica is first class: we were, in fact, the first country south of the US to have fibre-optic cabling; we have expanded it and it will soon cover the entire country. At which point, Jamaica will become the best internet-connected destination in the Caribbean.

We also have great air connectivity, especially with North America. We have two international airports that are very well equipped and six active maritime ports. We also have a very modern road network that includes the North-South Highway connection, which links Kingston to Ocho Rios in an hour and Ocho Rios to Montego Bay in an hour. We are now in the process of creating a South-East Highway connection that will connect Kingston to Port Antonio on the eastern side. We are not a very big country, so it doesn’t take you more than 2.5 hours to travel from one side of the island to the other with this new arrangement.

We have a stable economy, we have a liberal foreign exchange arrangement that allows you to work here and repatriate your profits and earnings. We also have a very stable social environment. We don’t have disturbances, insurrections, civil disobedience or civil wars. We have a stable political system as well, with elections every 4 to 5 years. And we change government seamlessly on the basis of the majority of elected members in our parliament. We have never had a situation where an incumbent government has failed to respect the will of the people and the outcome of an election. As a matter of fact, if the elections are held one day, the new Prime Minister takes over the next morning. There’s no extended transition period.

Jamaica really is a model in terms of democracy, social order and in terms of industrial stability. So, Jamaica would be an excellent destination choice for digital nomads. It is an interesting concept and something that Jamaica has been looking at, but a deeper study is required to ensure that, once a programme is started, it works seamlessly.

WF: Do you have a final message for our readers?

EB: Jamaica is a year-round, warm-weather destination. We have the finest people here and the greatest hospitality. The treasure of Jamaica, our most iconic attraction, is our people and we have a 42% repeat business rate because our people are so warm, friendly and hospitable. We encourage investment outside of formal tourism and are looking to the supply side of the sector. We are looking for investors that are able to work with us in textile manufacturing, furnishings, road building, health infrastructure and technological tools, especially in the area of digital technology and in building capacity to manage and create software. We are also interested in renewable energy. Then there is logistics, which is a new area that we will be focusing on. Jamaica has a central geographic location, which gives us a good opportunity to be a point for transshipment, procurement and for all the activities involved in moving goods and services from one place to another. We have an educated population, we speak English and we are a country that talented entrepreneurs can utilise to build their innovative businesses and expand their global activities.