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Airlift strategy paying off for low-volume tourism markets

Published:Friday | September 28, 2012 | 12:00 AM
John Lynch, director of tourism and head of the Jamaica Tourist Board. - File

Avia Collinder, Business Writer

WITH DATA from the last winter tourism season reflecting a return to pre-crash visitor arrivals, Director of Tourism John Lynch said the challenge now is tweaking airlift arrange-ments to maintain momentum.

The uptick in Canadian stopovers over the last four years is linked to greater product diversity, as well as significant improve-ments in airlift, Lynch noted on Monday.

The Canadian market has grown 60 per cent since the recession - from 236,193 stopovers at yearend 2008 to 378,938 at yearend 2011.

Seat availability and partners such as West Jet have been critical to that growth.

"People - travel advisers and airlines included - have more confidence in the product and they have put on more airlifts," Lynch told the Financial Gleaner.

"The new regional carrier, West Jet, is now operating some 29 flights during peak season per week. They have been very good for the market."

The director notes that expectations are also high for the coming winter season, due to kick off on December 15.

"Canada, like everywhere else, is going through some trying times economically but is still better than the United States. The Canadian dollar is now stronger than the US."

Top-performing province

Cumulatively, the Canadian market grew in the January to May 2012 period by 7.6 per cent to 234,142 visitors, relative to the same period in 2011.

The top-performing province was Ontario, up 9.5 per cent to 134,394; Quebec fell 3.2 per cent to 31,021 visitors.

JTB online notes in its Jamaica Airlift Guide that direct airlift for Jamaica is available from several Canadian gateways, inclusive of special charters and regular non-stop flights from Toronto, Edmonton, Thunder Bay, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina.

In the general market, Lynch notes, visitors are less likely to book a vacation if they have to take several connecting flights in order to reach their destination.

The data backs him up. JTB statistics reflect the best market recovery post-crash in regions where direct flights to Jamaica have been sustained or added.

Jamaica's ability to secure business from the Latin American market has been hampered by this very issue, the tourism director said. South and Central American travellers typically have to connect through Miami and other US ports to get to Jamaica.

Cash for travel permits

It also means shelling out cash for travel permits.

"They do not want to go through the problems of applying to the United States for a visa. It cost US$150 each and for a family of four that would be US$600," said Lynch.

The US continues to be Jamaica's main source market for visitors, but regional performance is mixed.

The American North-East, the source of more than 500,000 stopover visitors annually, benefits from the highest number of commuting craft, with further improvements for this segment in the offing.

"Delta will start out of JFK in December. This will be helpful because we have had deficiency in seats. Flights have been choc-a-bloc, and you know if they can't get a seat they go to a different destination," said Lynch, who heads the JTB.

For January to May 2012, the US market recorded a 0.3 per cent increase overall: the western region by 2.5 per cent; south by 1.5 per cent; and north-east by one per cent; but the gains were offset by Midwest decline of three per cent.

Lynch said reduced airlift was responsible for the anaemic performance of US west coast where visitors lag behind other areas in the United States.

"Six or seven years ago, we lost non-stop service from Los Angeles on Air Jamaica. People now coming from California have to go through Miami, Dallas or even new York, Charlotte and Atlanta to get to Jamaica," he said.

"But there is still a percentage of the market that likes to get on the plane and wake up in the destination. The people in California like to take the 'red eye' and wake up in Montego Bay. We lost that service."

To remedy the problem, discussions are being pursued with another carrier to operate the non-stop route, Lynch said.

A similar remedy is being sought for Latin America.

Copa Airlines of Panama has been flying to Jamaica since December.

"This has been very good for growth, especially Chileans, Colombians and Brazilians ... and they don't need a visa," said Lynch.

Colombian tourists have been allowed a visa waiver since 2012.

"They come and visit up to 30 days without a visa. There are now three flights a week to Kingston and two to Montego Bay. In December, this number will go to four flights to Montego Bay," the tourism official said.

Between January and May, Central American stopovers increased by 10.6 per cent and those from South America by 102.2 per cent. The combined Latin American growth was 63.9 per cent.

"It's a market we are taking very seriously," Lynch said.