WHEN WE FIRST SPOKE WITH the Honorable Edmund Bartlett in September, the then-newly appointed minister of tourism for Jamaica had some big goals to share with us.
Mainly, he told us his primary objective was to get an annual visitor count of 5 million people to Jamaica by 2012. Currently the country is averaging about 1.6 million visitors a year.
Since then, at just about every public appearance where we've seen him, his words and overall demeanor have remained the same. He smiles, he shakes hands, and then he repeatedly states how Jamaica will be the biggest powerhouse in the Caribbean for years to come.
When we sat down with the popular tourism official last month at Caribbean Marketplace on Paradise Island, the Bahamas, we weren't surprised that his attitude hadn't changed since his first days in office.
"I feel no pressure when I make such predictions—or rather, projections—because it's not really coming from me," he says. "These numbers are solely based on everything we are currently doing—not plans that we might go through or are thinking about, but things we are actually doing as we speak. How can I not expect major improvement?"
Bartlett revealed that he's addressing what he considers Jamaica's only two weaknesses: lack of awareness of its attractions diversity and insufficient airlift from the West Coast.
"We need to educate agents more about the heritage and nature qualities of our country. A lot of people don't know that we are much more than just beaches and ocean," Bartlett says. "For instance, we have 900 different species of plants." By spring, there will be tremendous evidence of that claim, as construction is in progress in the Drax Hall area of Ocho Rios on Mystic Mountain, an attraction where visitors will be able to experience rainforest terrain from 700 feet above sea level. Other features of Mystic Mountain will include a bobsled coaster ride, an aerial tramway canopy tour, a Jamaica athletic heritage museum and a water park. Completion of the site is expected by May.
Also in May, Bartlett expects Air Jamaica to announce new nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Kingston. Start date and frequency of the service are not yet known.
Passengers on those and other flights will arrive at a renovated airport: Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport has undertaken a three-phase $139 million expansion. As part of phase 1, a two-level pier was added in July, which separates arriving and departing passengers, as required by international security protocols. Four new passenger-loading bridges have also been put into service, for added convenience and comfort.
Phases 2 and 3 call for the addition of 66 check-in stations and an expanded area for outbound immigrations and security screening. The check-in hall will be renovated, and there will also be a new departure lounge on the upper floor with expanded retail and food outlets.
Bartlett says Caribbean Marketplace served as the perfect venue for getting the word out about Jamaica's improvements, as well as gathering tips from other islands.
"We all feed off each other, we all help each other," he says. "We are one region and we need to share ideas, and I see a lot of that going on at this event. I think the Caribbean has a lot to look forward to."