Avia Collinder, Business Reporter
Jamaican tourism officials are invigorated at the prospect of tapping into China's travel market, but hoteliers are sceptical.
The market is vast and holds potential, but getting them to Jamaica will require travel links that are currently lacking.
"The Chinese market has lots of potential due to the number of persons from that market with disposable income," says Evelyn Smith, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA).
"However, the real challenge for us here in Jamaica is the availability of airlift or easy connections. Until that has been accomplished which is not an easy feat, it will be difficult to welcome significant numbers."
Tourism Minister Dr Wykeham McNeill announced in July that Jamaica is looking to the Chinese travel market to increase visitor arrivals to Jamaica.
His predecessor, Edmund Bartlett, also made a play for business from that market starting back in 2008 under the former JLP administration, but just about 0.1 per cent of Jamaica's tourism market is currently fed by the Asian powerhouse.
Bartlett in mid-2011 announced that talks were under way for China Air to start flying directly to Jamaica. The Government changed six months later.
Last week, John Lynch, the tourism director and head of the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), said air connectivity "continues to pose a challenge". He also said the industry was in need of more Chinese language speakers.
According to tourism ministry data, Chinese travellers - the fastest-growing source market for tourism worldwide - spent a record US$102 billion in 2012, representing 10 per cent of total global expenditure.
To entice more of them to Jamaica, McNeill is proposing group travel packages; exemptions to holders of third-country entry permits - for example Canadian, Schengen or United States visas; and look at boosting airlift.
A Chinese language website is already in place and is continuously updated.
Jamaica has Approved Destination Status with China, but visas to Jamaica are only available in Beijing which is a challenge to the far-flung populace of 1.34 billion.
BEST SHOWING EVER
Last year, Chinese tourist visits climbed to 2,102, the markets best showing ever, but still negligible compared to the nearly two million visitors in total from around the globe. Still, the numbers outperformed the Japanese market for the first time, according to data from the JTB, which recorded 2,092 Japanese visitors last year.
In 2011, Chinese visitors totalled 1,703, Japanese 2,027; and the year before that, 1,362 Chinese and 1,950 Japanese.
The last in-depth survey of Chinese travellers to Jamaica done locally by the JTB seven years ago indicates that arrivals in 2005 numbered just under 1,000. Of that number, 54 per cent stayed in private homes and 25 per cent in hotels. The accommodations for the others were unknown.
Just about one third were present in the island for leisure, recreation and holiday activities, while 11 per cent were visiting friends, 23 per cent were here on business. The purpose of the other 34 per cent was unknown. Most chose to stay in Montego Bay.
Dennis Chung, chief executive officer of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, says that aside from the logistical issues of airlift and visas, Jamaica needs to focus on product development specific to Chinese tastes.
"I think that in order to attract the Chinese, tourists from so far away, that we need to offer something unique for them to want to come so far. For example, people will go to Europe and in particular places like France and Monaco because of the uniqueness of the location," said Chung.
"We have something that is special, our music and sports, which we do not use enough. The other thing though is that we can't be serious about high end or tourists from so far with high crime and indiscipline, poor infrastructure, and the way we abuse our beaches, etc. Tourism in Jamaica is primarily all-inclusive. Why come so far just to be stuck in a hotel?"
Still, Smith says that most of those who now come to Jamaica are choosing the large all-inclusive hotels.
"Many may favour four or five-star type properties. Tour groups from that market are quite popular as well so there should be opportunities for the cultural and heritage tours and attractions," said the JHTA president.
"Eventually, if the market opens up, there will be a need to increase our language competency in order to communicate more efficiently. However, to reiterate, opening up this market depends heavily of airlift," Smith said.
Jamaican hoteliers say they want McNeill's China plan to work, but are themselves unwilling to invest marketing dollars there because of expected low returns.
"We have done very little to focus on this market for several reason, namely it's very difficult for them to get to Jamaica. Our runways are not long enough for serious long-haul flights - 14 hours - and, hence, they have to make at least two stops, usually, which makes the journey long and harsh," says CEO of Sandals Resorts International, Adam Stewart.
"No doubt it is a booming market and could potentially reap major rewards for Jamaica and the wider Caribbean in the next decade, but for now Sandals Resorts International is very focused on our source markets which we have pioneered for the last 31 years."
Sandals, he said, may focus aggressively on China as a prospective market at some point "way down the road".
"Personally, I think Jampro should keep up its efforts to build this marketplace. It's part of what their remit is and a function of Government to build gateways for our tourism industry."
Regionally, Mexico appears to be doing the most to target the Chinese and is expecting 30 per cent growth in the number of Chinese tourists this year. Its promotions are targeted mainly at newlyweds and business travellers in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Mexico uses its 31 world heritage sites and more than 30,000 archaeological sites as drawing cards.
Jamaica Tourist Board operates a Chinese language website which it uses for outreach.
"The purpose is to raise awareness of Jamaica among the travel trade as well as of travellers throughout China," says Lynch.
"This is still the most cost-effective way of marketing the destination in China because the portal is used by all travel professionals and by the majority of educated travellers across China," the tourism director said.
The China Business Network, which offers marketing services to non-Chinese companies, is the JTB's representative in China.
The board said Tuesday that it has no specific marketing budget for China.
Jamaica's Tourism Markets 2012
|Asia and Pacific||Under 1%|
Source: Jamaica Tourist Board