MINISTER of Tourism Ed Bartlett says that his swing through Asian powerhouses China and Japan, in an effort to not only reverse the recent downturn in visitor arrivals from those countries but also to significantly boost them, as well as to open up new markets in Asia and the Middle East, has met with success and he expects that the tangible results should be evident”very soon”.
Bartlett, speaking with the Observer in Tokyo on the second leg of his trip last Friday night – the third would take him to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates – expressed high hopes for a number of new air travel arrangements which could significantly boost Chinese and Japanese visitor numbers to Jamaica. Japan state-owned carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA), he said, has responded favourably to proposals to re-enter the Jamaican market, while code-sharing arrangements are being finalised with China Air and China Southern. Mexican airline Aero Mexico has also come on board to enable Chinese visitors departing from Shanghai to travel to Jamaica via Mexico.
The tourism minister described the two challenges to maximising the growth of the Chinese market as those of airlift, as well as the language barrier and he said that steps are being taken to deal with both. He said that the Aero Mexico deal “will provide transit into Mexico, which would then allow for a Jamaican connection (either) with Air Jamaica, or with a designated carrier into Montego Bay”.
This arrangement has emerged from an air service agreement arrived at between Jamaica and Mexico. The deal also has the advantage of enabling travellers to avoid potential visa pitfalls that they may encounter when transiting through the USA.
ANA, which used to be the main conduit for Japanese visitors to Jamaica, pulled out of the market some years ago and this, Bartlett said, had been a major factor in the sharp decline of visitor arrivals from Japan.
“The new initiative…is to re-engage ANA and we had great discussions…with ANA as well as with Japan Airlines (JAL) to move into establishing code-sharing arrangements with Air Jamaica, as well as e-ticketing arrangements, so that there can be seamless transfer from New York, and other destinations where Air Jamaica has routes, into Jamaica,” he said.
Annual tourism arrivals from Japan, in the past, have reached as high as over 20,000 visitors. Recent years, however, have seen a downward trend. In 2007, the numbers plunged by 18 per cent over 2006, to just about 3,500 visitors. The sluggish performance of the Japanese economy in recent years has been one factor that has contributed to the downturn. Another, as in the case of China, has been limited airlift capacity.
Bartlett said that Jamaica had set a target of attracting as many as 50,000 Japanese tourists annually to the island, even as Japan is setting itself the target of having as many as 20 million Japanese citizens head out annually on holiday overseas by 2010.
Meanwhile, in 2007, 1,067 Chinese visitors came to Jamaica, which Bartlett said marked a record for Chinese tourist arrivals to the island, and represented a 10 per cent increase over 2006. China’s galloping double-digit economic growth has fuelled the rapid expansion of that country’s middle class and Chinese tourists with disposable income have been hitting the road. Japan in recent times has seen a significant influx of visitors from the Middle Kingdom and, notwithstanding the distance, Jamaica, too, is looking to capitalise.
Bartlett described the potential for more visitors to Jamaica from China as “enormous” and his meetings with major tourism players, including the Chinese government minister responsible for aviation and the senior vice minister responsible for tourism, have left him decidedly upbeat.
He said too, that code-sharing arrangements are being finalised with major Chinese carriers China Air and China Southern to enable passengers to fly directly to Jamaica without having to overnight in the US as is currently the case, through code-sharing arrangements with American Airlines, Delta and Northwest.
Regarding the language issue, Bartlett said that language experts would perhaps have to be brought into the island to assist in that regard. As a longer term measure, however, he said that the school of hospitality now under construction in Montego Bay will offer instruction in a range of foreign languages, including Chinese and Japanese. China, he said, is prepared to offer assistance with this venture by providing language training personnel to the institution.
The Jamaican government, he said, is also looking at erecting multi-language signage across the island.
In China, Bartlett also became the country’s first cabinet minister to address the prestigious Chinese Outbound Travel and Tourism Market (COTTM). He also accepted, on the country’s behalf, an award from China’s national tourism institute, recognising Jamaica’s outstanding performance as a top Caribbean destination, and met with potential investors in Jamaica’s tourism product, as well as with Chinese investors already involved in projects in Jamaica.
The Far East trip is, Bartlett said, a part of Jamaica’s strategy to open several non-traditional tourism markets in the burgeoning economies of China and India, as well as other emerging Asian economies. The marketing plan also targets South American markets such as Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, as well as newly re-energised countries in Eastern Europe.