Janet Silvera, Senior Gleaner Writer
The first group of 800 United States and Canadian travel agents invited to sample the island's tourism product over the next five weeks, have started to arrive in the country.
The agents, who started arriving on the island last Thursday, have been dispatched into the resort towns of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril, Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Dr Wykeham McNeill told The Gleaner.
"We invited 1,500 agents, 800 have confirmed so far," McNeill revealed, explaining that under the guidance of the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), the agents would saturate the market in the five weeks, leaving the island educated about the rich and vibrant tourism product.
The trip will allow them access to experience all of the attractions here, while visiting the majority of the hotels.
Their visit happens during a period classified as the slowest in the industry.
"September so far is slightly up over last year, but it remains the worst month of the year. It's a tough month, the time when all the children go back to school and all the financial difficulties set in," explained Tourism Director John Lynch.
Like the tourism director, the minister is optimistic that Jamaica has done reasonably well this year, in relation to stop-over visitors.
And both concur that September and October being the renowned challenging months for the industry was the perfect time to expose the product to those who sell it.
They argue that these familiarisation trips were even more pivotal at this time, owing to the fact it is an election year in the United States, and "People are not thinking travel, so it suits us to put an additional crank into the system".
"I feel the 800 figure now confirmed, could move up to 1,000 agents in the long run," said Lynch.
Looking for testimonials
Lynch, who has worked as regional director in the JTB's overseas offices for several years, said a good percentage of travellers who have never left the US, particularly young travellers, are looking for third-party testimonials before they venture outside of their country.
"Travel agents, who were felt to be extinct are the ones they go to."
According to him an educated agent is the best thing a country dependent on tourism could have.
Lynch described the new breed of agents as nimble and technology savvy.
"They have had to make themselves relevant, through the use of the Internet," he said.
Complementing this group, a large team of top agents from Germany is expected in the island this November.
"This is the season for familiarisation trips, this is when you lay the base," said Lynch.
In addition, he promised that specialised agents would visit the island later this year to experience Kingston and Port Antonio.
"Port Antonio and Kingston can handle smaller trips," he said.