Jamaica’s newly appointed Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Dr. Kenneth Wykeham McNeill was recently in conversation with Travel Agent. And judging from his candid, no-nonsense approach and response to our questions, we expect him to fit in just fine.
McNeill is a member of the People’s National Party and assumed his first position as a legislator when he was appointed a government senator in 1995 and continued until 1997. He was first elected as Member of Parliament for Western Westmoreland in 1997 and was reelected in 2002, 2007 and 2011. Over the years he has contributed to and served on several boards and was a co-founder and director of the Clinic of Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy.
The New Minister Takes Charge
McNeill was appointed minister of tourism and entertainment and was sworn in on January 6 this year, replacing the well-liked Edmund Bartlett, who held the position since 2007.
He is no stranger to the tourism portfolio, having been appointed Minister of State in the Ministry of Tourism and Sports from 2000 to 2007, with responsibility for tourism operations, including cruise shipping and tourism development. Our first question for him: What’s behind the “Entertainment” addition to the title?
“Our artists are out there; they are ambassadors for our tourism product,” he says. “It puts us in the position to take some of those artists and see how we can give them even more exposure. That’s why the ministry has been expanded to include entertainment. It’s not just about exposure, but also about recognizing that we have such a strong brand. We need to ensure that the framework is in place because there are a whole series of things that will be done.”
He says his main goals in his new role will be to focus on three areas: marketing and advertising, product development, and airlift/airline policy issues. As far as marketing and advertising go, McNeill would like to see more of Jamaica’s heritage and culture promoted because, “that’s what makes us different from our competitors. Visitors are looking for sun, sand and sea but they are also looking for something more.”
What about airlift?
“Primary areas where we are always looking for more airlift include the northeast, especially New York,” says McNeill. “We want more direct flights from [there]. We are looking to get some from Latin America and we can get some out of Russia too.” (Note: In December, Copa Airlines inaugurated service between Montego Bay and Panama. Copa flights to Jamaica are now available from 58 cities in the Americas.)
McNeill says there are ongoing discussions with JetBlue to try to get some more direct flights out of New York.
The destination’s overnight arrivals have been growing 5 percent to 10 percent a year on average, he says. However, according to McNeill the winter season has been flat compared to the same season last year in that regard.
“The real growth,” he says, “will depend on the summer and we are not certain how it will pan out. Usually during election years, traveling isn’t as strong as other years. But we are hopeful that we will at least see a single-digit growth for 2012.”
What is the latest on Jamaica’s plans to open casinos?
“They are in the process of deciding who will get the first casino license,” says McNeill. “In fact, none of the applicants for a casino have received any licenses. We are still in the early days. What we have in place is the legislature to govern, but construction hasn’t started yet.”
John Lynch Remains
Since former Minister of Tourism Bartlett was not reappointed in late December, many in the industry were wondering what would become of his right-hand man, Director of Tourism and Chairman John Lynch.
In mid-February, McNeill announced that Lynch isn’t going anywhere. The popular Jamaica tourism figure will stay on as director of tourism, but will be replaced as chairman by Dennis Morrison.
“The position by the current government is that we will no longer have an executive chairman,” McNeill says of the decision to remove the title from Lynch. “We don’t encourage executive chairmanship. It has nothing to do with competence. There are some boards that have a chairman and chief executive officer. That is not something policy-wise that we encourage.”
Other board of director members include Paul Pennicook, president of International Lifestyle, the worldwide representative of SuperClubs Resorts, and former director of tourism; Wayne Cummings, former president of the Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association; Evelyn Smith, current president of the Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association; Carolyn Wright; Kevin Hendrickson; Marc Melville; and Zein Issa-Nakash, the daughter of John Issa, the founder of SuperClubs Resorts.