MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica -- The first sign we saw as we were recently riding a Sandals Resorts bus from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay was a giant billboard proclaiming RIU resorts as the destination’s best all-inclusives.
If you wanted a sign, literally, of how things have changed in Jamaica, this was it.
For years Sandals Resorts and other locally owned and operated hotels dominated Jamaica. But for the last 10 years, a major foreign entity in the form of Spanish-operated all-inclusives began establishing a firm position in the destination.
And now, with two new RIU in the last two years on top of existing RIU and Occidental properties coupled with a brand new Iberostar resort, Jamaica is experiencing a full-fledged Spanish invasion.
“Naturally, a level of competition has emerged with all the new Spanish properties coming on board,” Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s minister of tourism, told Travel Agent during a one-one interview in Port Antonio. “And all this has done is force other products to increase their levels, to step to the plate and improve their products.”
Besides locally owned but foreign-managed U.S. brands like Marriott, Holiday Inn and Ritz-Carlton, Jamaica didn’t really have much of a foreign presence before the Spanish all-inclusives decided to join the party.
For a country like Jamaica, this transformation took a little time to get used to. But major hotel chains, like Sandals, now welcome all competition and see it as motivation to improve the quality of their products.
We spoke to Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts International, about the increasing presence of Spanish-owned all-inclusives and how his company plans to fend them off in the future.
Stewart says that, whereas the Spanish all-inclusives like RIU provide much more rooms than Sandals does, they still can’t compete with Sandals’ personal service. In fact, Stewart notes that sandals has two staff members per room while RIU and other all-inclusives like it have about .5 staff members per room.
Within the last year, Sandals’ Jamaica properties have constantly been upgrading, including Sandals Royal Caribbean’s recent addition of its River Suites among other notable refurbishments at other Sandals resorts in Jamaica.
“We know we have to take them seriously,” Stewart told us during an event for his SandalsFoundation . “It’s dangerous if you don’t take someone seriously, so we have decided to step it up, to improve our game a bit and our product and that is what we are doing. As long as these other companies keep building, we will keep investing.”
Stewart says that, even with all the new properties, Sandals is still holding its own. “Did we lose perhaps one or two customers here and there to the new properties? Perhaps,” Stewart admits. “But on the grand scale, we are doing just fine.”
The latest additions have come in the form of Iberostar and RIU. RIU recently opened its 420-room RIU Negril and in September opened the RIU Montego Bay. Meanwhile, Iberostar just opened a new property in the Rose Hall section of Montegp Bay.
“We don’t think these hotels are going to go away anytime soon,” said John Lynch, Jamaica’s director of tourism. “This is something that we saw coming for a while now and these are hotels that had to be built. They have brought the destination some strengths and have caused other hotels to step up their product. So we welcome products like these.”