(Jamaica Observer) Jamaica is to embark on a radical new tourism strategy based in part on the 2007 Cricket World Cup special visa system.
In a bid to create a “critical mass” to attract visitors from the booming Asian market, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett is calling for Caribbean nations to form a visa union allowing passengers to travel to several countries on a single document.
The new system would resemble the 25-country Schengen zone in Europe or the temporary system set up four years ago to allow cricket fans to watch matches in a dozen West Indian countries with a minimum of bureaucratic hassle.
Officials hope the multi-destination visa will encourage Asian long-haul passengers to spend several weeks in the region, visiting different countries with dramatically different cultures.
“Asia is our newest frontier,” Bartlett said at the World Travel Awards in Montego Bay last week. “We just signed an agreement in South Korea.” Although he declined to reveal details, the minister said he’d been meeting with airlines and tour operators.
Initially, Bartlett said he has reached agreements in principle with Colombia and Mexico, and hopes to sign up Panama, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
However, details have still to be ironed out by the ministries of transport, national security and foreign affairs in participating countries, he said.
The first three countries would give Asian tourists access to a total of 300,000 hotel rooms in countries with a combined population of 159 million.
The Asian market has become more accessible recently as a result of improved airlift capability with the advent of Boeing’s Dreamliner, which can take almost 300 passengers some 15,000 km, and the Airbus A380, which can take more than 500 passengers a similar distance.
“The Dreamliner and A380 now allow us to have the flight connections and volume,” Bartlett said, adding that this was more significant than the arrival of the Jumbo jet 40 years ago. “It’s greater than the 747,” he said.
The Asian initiative comes on top of an attempt to attract more visitors from Latin America, with Panama’s flag carrier, Copa, to operate two flights a week into Montego Bay from December.
Although Panama is a relatively small country, the airline’s base at Tocumen International airport acts as a hub for much of South America.
John Lynch, the chairman of the Jamaica Tourist Board, said the main advantage of flying visitors through Panama is that they don’t have to pay for an American visa at US$150 ($12,800) a time.
The Caribbean’s traditional markets, America, Britain and Canada, are struggling with weak economies and the possibility that things could get much worse if the eurozone collapses or the US returns to recession. By comparison, China’s GDP growth has been running above nine per cent a year.
Graham Cooke, founder and president of the World Travel Awards, said that Jamaica needed to take better advantage of booming new markets, particularly those in Latin America, noting that he had yet to see a Jamaican tourism website in either Spanish or Portuguese, let alone Russian.
Arabia was also a missed opportunity, he said. “The first Caribbean country that gets an Arab airline will sweep the board.”
But Lynch said that the industry should advance step by step and not try to over-reach. “One, one, fill up basket,” he said.
Cooke also criticised the immigration document that all visitors have to fill out for missing one crucial piece of modern information – their email addresses. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, collect this data and use it for follow-up marketing campaigns, he said.
“Nobody today could give you a printout of who’s here in Jamaica.”
If it had that data, the country could use it not only to attract return visitors, but to influence potential foreign investors. “Most destinations miss the opportunity to really develop business from tourism,” he said.
Lynch said his organisation was trying to shorten the immigration form and add a section for email addresses. “We encourage hotels to get emails,” he said.