How Jamaica is taking its tourism brand beyond sun and sand with this world conference

Overwater villas at Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Overwater villas at Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica. TNS

This year’s hurricane season brought powerful storms that bruised much of the Caribbean’s tourism brand — but not Jamaica’s.

Unscathed by hurricanes Irma and Maria, the island has raked in more than $2.3 billion in tourism earnings so far this year, and will soon reach four million cruise ship visitors. Yet despite that success, Jamaica is struggling to make its tourism brand sustainable while protecting its environment and holding on to its unique cultural heritage.

“Jamaica needs to do much more in terms of managing its own environment,” Prime Minister Andrew Holness said in a recent Miami Herald interview. “Jamaica must increase its volume in the international arena.”

This week, the island nation known for its lush mountains, beautiful beaches and authentic reggae and dancehall beats will work toward that goal when it hosts the three-day “Global Conference on Jobs and Inclusive Growth” in Montego Bay. The conference opens Monday and ends Wednesday.

Sponsored by the United Nations World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the government of Jamaica, the event will welcome more than 150 tourism experts and professionals to the Caribbean, where it is being held for the first time.

“Tourism must raise the standard of living for the people it employs, not harm it,” said Jamaica tourism minister and conference host Edmund Bartlett, who noted that a single tourist visiting the island-nation affects 75 jobs, directly or indirectly.“It is my belief that tourism, when practiced in a sustainable fashion, has the tremendous capacity to create good jobs, provide opportunities for inclusion and education and assist in preserving cultural heritage and the environment.”

While Jamaica’s tourism success will be highlighted, so, too, will its challenges and that of the rest of the Caribbean, where tourism is the single biggest earner of foreign dollars in 15 of 28 countries, according to Bartlett.

A tour guide holds a bottle of rum at the Appleton Estate distillery in Cornwall, Jamaica, on Feb. 10, 2014. The distillery is a centuries-old temple of sorts, teeming with spirits in the lush Nassau Valley. PIOTR REDLINKSI NYT

“Not only is it the first time we’re bringing together the key stakeholders of tourism— financial, intellectual, the hotel/hospitality groups, the cruise lines, multilateral agencies, lending agencies and donor countries — but it’s also the first time we’re going to be focusing on empowering the small- and medium-sized tourism entities,” Bartlett said.

Historically, Jamaica has embraced tourism but failed to structure its struggling economy around visitors.

“If the system is not built to respond to the demand of tourism, the sector has a tendency to become dependent on foreign imports,” Bartlett said.

In recent years, Jamaica has tried to cut down on its dependence on foreign imports in its tourism industry by having hotels, for example, use local products. But linking the growth industry with agriculture, which forms the base of the Jamaican economy, and manufacturing, another staple of the economy, remains a huge structural challenge.

“The nature of the economy is such that we simply do not have enough linkage between our major enterprises,” Holness said. “Until we’re able to ensure that tourism, agriculture and manufacturing are seamlessly connected, we will continue to have these structural challenges.”

Still, Holness thinks the conference is a step in the right direction — calling it “a major coup” — along with another set to follow. The day after the global conference ends, Jamaica will host the Tech Beach Retreat, also in Montego Bay, Thursday through Saturday. The event will feature tech entrepreneurs and investors who will be looking at Jamaica as a potential technology hub.

“Tourism,” said Holness, “is doing better than it has done in a long time.”