Sat | Nov 27, 2021

Mark Ricketts | Tourism is our success story

Published:Friday | November 2, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Tourism is all the rage these days with the opening of the US$110-million Excellence Oyster Bay hotel on the private peninsula near Falmouth and the soon-to-be-completed S Hotel on Jimmy Cliff Boulevard in Montego Bay. No wonder the prime minister playfully chided his tourism minister, saying his 2021 forecast of five million visitors should be upped to six million. The figure last year was a record 4.3 million.

Tourism has been a winner for the country. Its continued success is important, given the fatigue from the everyday humdrum of crime and corruption, sexual assaults, anaemic GDP growth, and social dysfunction.

What makes tourism's record-breaking performance so elevating is that it comes against a backdrop of serious challenges, both locally and globally.

Domestically, people could justifiably despair, given the negative optics of soldiers and policemen manning checkpoints during a state of public emergency.

Instinctively, this is disheartening in a city like Montego Bay that has historically assumed the mantle of being the bedrock of tourism in Jamaica.

Most of our vacationers are from overseas, where global geopolitics and economics are in disarray. There are trade wars and conflicts, rising interest rates, oil price uncertainties, tightening liquidity, currency depreciation in emerging markets, and lower-than-expected retail sales activity in the US. Jamaica could be forgiven for any decline in arrivals as visitors succumbed to the uncertainty and economic turmoil and decided not to travel.

Visitors weren't given a chance, as Sandals and Beaches ramped up their advertising, including going full bore on the high-end Bloomberg TV business channel. Minister of Tourism Ed Bartlett and his team undertook promotional outreach and implemented a five per cent annual earnings and arrival target, the result of intense strategising sessions.

The net effect: 4.3 million visitors arrived in 2017 (2.35 million stopover and 1.95 million cruise passengers), a 12.1 per cent increase over 2016. Already this year's numbers are on course to outpace last year's. As for gross foreign exchange earnings, they climbed from $2.5 billion in 2016 to $3 billion in 2017.

Continued strength in the tourism sector will rekindle hope for areas requiring a nudge for enhanced growth prospects. Proposed increased activity in cruise ship calls to the idyllic, laid-back town of Port Antonio is an ideal example, especially if it recaptures some of the excitement and passion that the famed Hollywood actor Errol Flynn imagined for Portland.

 

SPIN-OFF BENEFITS

 

There are spin-off benefits for the operator of MBJ, the current operator of Sangster International Airport.

It bodes well for Jamaica that the operator of SIA has selected one of the world's leading engineering companies, along with a consortium of seven local firms, to develop a master plan for SIA and leverage the latest technology, while improving the travel experience for passengers.

With increased travel and wider interests in the vacation experience, a sadness in all this is what happened to Air Jamaica - an airline with heightened market awareness and national sentiment and with an impeccable safety record. Even today, its former pilots are doing simulation training of pilots and would-be-pilots for major airlines. The airline was that good, but we lost it. We can't afford to lose tourism; it's the real winner in post-Independence Jamaica.

Yes, I know the pitfalls and the shortcomings. There are leakages, the absence of linkages, income inequalities, an overdue pension plan, highly skilled and top executive posts being reserved for foreign staff, and many of the new larger hotels under construction are owned by overseas interests.

But that said, any country that has an industry where earnings leapfrogged in US dollars from $241,700 in 1980; to $740,000 in 1990; to $1,332, 597 in 2000; and $2,001,245 in 2010; then to $3 million seven years later, is fortunate. That country should be salivating about the vision, the marketing, the strength of the service and product offering, the role of its government in helping to rebrand and reposition the industry, and the risk disposition of its investors.

Any industry where the number of consumers of products and services being offered jumped from 543,088 in 1980; to 1,384,573 in 1990; to 2,231,765 in 2000, to 2,831,654 in 2010; then to 4.3 million seven years later, that industry is a winner.

Tourism in Jamaica is now fully integrated in the global community and subjected to internationally determined norms and measurements in areas of service, safety, security, orderliness, and civility. That reality seems to escape us, despite frequent alerts by the US State Department and warnings by writers in our local media that our level of social dysfunction cannot be masked forever.

Does our country understand this? Are our people ready? Are our local investors and institutions disposed to committing serious capital? Is our education close to creating awareness while positioning our human talent to the dynamism of the hospitality sector? Do the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, where much is needed in value added and disruptive technologies, understand the transformative effect of tourism?

On all these counts, I would say no. Furthermore, The Gleaner's front-page story last Wednesday outlining Jamaica's tourism under international fire for multiple reports of sexual assaults tells us that the society has a good way to go.

 - Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.