Romell Newby | ‘Ochi’ International Airport: whim and fad
Social media lit up recently after the frenzied discovery of Ochi International Airport and Air Ochi, possibly the largest of the Garden Parish since the arrival of Christopher Columbus in Discovery Bay in May 1494.
A viral voice note of a young woman confidently declaring, "Me live a Jamaica, yes, but me nuh deh a Jamaica now, me deh a Ochi," had those both familiar and unfamiliar with Jamaica's geography quite excited at the newly discovered isle of Ochi somewhere off the coast of Jamaica, with many scrambling for Ochi passports and Ochi visas. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram went wild with posts, memes and parodies of the Ochi International Airport.
While some may flee from Jamaica and even Ocho Rios in the quest for the isle of Ochi, opting for Ochi visas and passports, ahead of the dreaded likelihood of a 45th US president in Donald Trump, it may come as a news flash to others that Ocho Rios indeed has an international airport. The Ian Fleming International Airport located in Boscobel, St Mary, is 15 minutes east of the town of Ocho Rios. Its runway, however, is some 3,231 feet short of international commercial airline standards and in dire need of expansion, and if undertaken, should provide significantly increased airlift to Jamaica, boosting tourism for the neglected resort towns of Ocho Rios and Port Antonio.
With Port Antonio's natural and scenic tourism product long being untapped and Ocho Rios having suffered from deterioration and sidelined for the development of the Falmouth Pier, the expansion of Ian Fleming as a major international airport is long overdue.
With Port Antonio and Ocho Rios three and a half hours and one and a half hours away, respectively, from the Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay; and one (via the new north-south link of Highway 2000) and two hours from the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston to Ocho Rios and Portland, respectively, the expansion of the Ian Fleming International Airport would serve both visitors to and residents of Ochi and 'Portie' well.
In 2014, Jamaica achieved a record two million stopover visitors (by air), a combined total of 3.4 million visitors (airline and cruise ship), and is third behind the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas in leading Caribbean tourist destinations. Trinidad, just half Jamaica's size with little tourism of 400,000 visitors, has two major international airports. The Bahamas, not much larger than Jamaica with only 1.2 million stopover visitors recorded in 2014, has six major/international airports.
According to Jamaica Tourist Board annual travel statistics for 2014, total hotel room stock/inventory sits at approximately 26,000 rooms. With new hotel developments of 2015 and those yet to be completed for 2016-2017, total hotel room inventory should number approximately 30,000 rooms - still not enough to meet demand during tourism's peak winter season. Yet some 5,000 hotel rooms exist but remain closed.
With the thawing of US-Cuba relations and the looming reopening of Cuba to the world, without a serious multi-destination partnership effort, Jamaica's tourism stands to suffer significant fall-off.
A partnership should have been long pursued with Cuba, our closest neighbour, with which we share not only a penchant for music and sports, but also much history and close political ties, though differing political ideologies. With Cuba's tourism booming at three million visitors in 2014, 3.5 million stopover arrivals, and 5.5 million total arrivals (airline and cruise ship) for 2015, surpassing 80 per cent occupancy during both peak and off-peak for 2015-2016, and with rapid and numerous hotel developments on the horizon, once Cuba's tourism product is fully on stream and before its novelty has cooled, Jamaica will face stiff competition for visitors from both the traditional North American and European markets.
Outside reducing crime and visitor harassment, harnessing the full potential of Jamaica's cultural products is vital to the competitiveness and sustainability of Jamaica's tourism. With its resort town in shambles and an international airport unable to accommodate large private and commercial aircraft, Ocho Rios, or rather Ochi, fun and joke aside, needs serious attention.