Driving to Ocho Rios from Montego Bay, there are numerous signs of the building boom transforming the North Coast of Jamaica.
First off, there is the highway itself, which features several new sections opened in the last year, cutting the drive to Ocho Rios from two hours to a more bearable 90 minutes. Along the highway, east of Montego Bay, Spanish developer Iberostar recently finished the first phase of its 950-room Montego Bay Hotel. Farther down the road, near Runaway Bay, the Gran Bahia Principe opened earlier this year. It is part of a sprawling complex with its own entertainment and shopping center, developed by Spanish developer Grupo Pinero.
During this year’s annual JAPEX conference, held at the Sunset Jamaica Grande in Ocho Rios, tourism officials said another 15,000 rooms are expected to open in Jamaica in the next five years, primarily along the North Coast. While many Caribbean islands struggled last year, Jamaica posted a 13.5 percent increase in arrivals in 2006, officials said, despite a weak U.S. market, a phenomenon they attributed to new passport requirements. In contrast, arrivals to the island from Canada were up 31 percent and traffic from the United Kingdom increased by 17 percent.
Several big new projects are moving forward on the North Coast, including Harmony Cove, a 1,400-acre resort and residential property with two golf courses, which recently broke ground near Trelawny, 23 miles east of Montego Bay. With a price tag near $2 billion, more than 5,000 rooms are planned for the resort, which will include its own private air strip. Couples Resort has already announced plans to build a new hotel on a neighboring property.
Farther along are the towers for the Palmyra Resort and Spa, the first high-end residential complex on the coast, located next to the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hill. The project will also feature a 23,000-square-foot spa.
But not all the development is in the luxury category. SuperClubs, which recently completed a $20 million revamping of its Breezes Runaway Bay, announced during JAPEX that it is expanding its Rooms-on-the-Beach bed-and-breakfast concept with a new hotel in Negril, scheduled to open in December. The Rooms format, pioneered in Ocho Rios, calls for simple rooms and rates closer to $75 a night, without the all-inclusive frills.
“You can rent a room without being forced to buy liquor and to buy food,” said SuperClubs’ executive chairman John Issa. “This is freedom for the traveler.”
To help fill the wave of new rooms, Jamaica’s tourism officials said they plan to ask the government for an additional $4.5 million to $5 million to boost marketing programs and improve the island’s infrastructure.
“We can’t spend the same amount of money promoting 17,000 rooms as 27,000,” said Horace Peterkin, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association. Plans include expanding efforts to reach out to the West Coast, an increasingly important part of Jamaica’s tourism, thanks in large part to Air Jamaica’s direct flights from Los Angeles. Traffic from the West Coast was “almost nonexistent” a few years ago, Peterkin said.
Tourism officials used JAPEX to stress the island’s diversity and range of activities, which help differentiate Jamaica from other Caribbean destinations. New attractions range from the expanded facilities at Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios, including a chance to interact with sharks and swim with stingrays, to a new dog-sledding tour, “Mush, Mon” which presumably makes as much sense as a Jamaican bobsled team.
For a taste of the real Jamaica, visitors can now tour the facilities of Walkerswood, which is famous for its jerk seasonings. The public can explore the beautiful grounds and get a quick tutorial on the spices and peppers that go into Jamaica’s famous rubs and sauces. The facility also offers cooking classes, focusing on recipes developed by the staff.
For visitors who want to get an even more authentic experience, the Ministry of Tourism is promoting a new bed-and-breakfast program which allows travelers to stay in real Jamaican homes certified by the ministry. Prices typically range from $35 to $75 a night, including breakfast. The rooms can be booked through the tourism board’s Website, UniqueJamaica.com, although there are no commissions offered.
“It’s not meant to be a commission structure for [travel agents],” said Carrole Guntley, director general in the Ministry of Industry and Tourism. “The understanding is that the referral will be powerful to them.”
During JAPEX, tourism officials stressed that Jamaica’s growth would center on the ability to offer more than the all-inclusive experience, which is still the centerpiece of most trips to Jamaica. The key to success will be “upgrading Jamaica’s infrastructure,” Issa said, “and the continued improvement of Jamaica’s image.”