Ministers of Tourism Summit: Leaders From the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica and Costa Rica Outline Strategies for Their Locales

Travel Agent magazine hosted a panel of top tourism officials in Berlin in March, just as ITB was opening.

On hand for the dynamic discussion were Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Ministry of Tourism for the Bahamas; Wykeham McNeill, minister of tourism and entertainment for Jamaica; Richard Sealy, minister of tourism and international transport, Barbados; and Alejandro Castro, marketing director, Costa Rican Tourism Board.

Ruthanne Terrero, VP/editorial director of Travel Agent magazine, moderated the exchange. Following is a condensed version of the discussion.

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Ruthanne Terrero: Welcome to all of you. Let’s start off with a view on how important the U.S. market is to your destination.

Joy Jibrilu, the Bahamas: Approximately 60 percent of our GDP is a direct result of tourism, and 55 percent of our direct employment comes from tourism. Eighty percent of our source market is the United States, so this is a huge market and very, very important for the Bahamas. It’s absolutely vital to the socioeconomic sustainability of our country.

Wykeham McNeill, Jamaica: Similarly for Jamaica, the U.S. market is very important and certainly our largest market. Sixty percent of the stopover arrivals come from the United States. The U.S. and Canada are 84 percent of our total arrivals. And, of course, we have cruise ships, which have a large portion from the American market. So it certainly is, by far, the more dominant market in terms of arrivals for Jamaica.

Richard Sealy, Barbados: Unlike the Bahamas and Jamaica, the U.S. is not our largest source market. It actually is the United Kingdom, but the U.S. is our second-largest source market. We are a little different from [the rest of] the Caribbean; it’s not our number-one market, but it’s still where we place a great deal of resources because there is a great deal of potential for us. Certainly the cruise industry, as was mentioned by Dr. McNeill, is really dominated by the U.S. It’s a very important part of tourism in Barbados.

Alejandro Castro, Costa Rica: For Costa Rica, [the U.S. market] is around 40 percent. We are pretty diversified, but we really appreciate Americans. It’s also where we allocate our biggest amount of resources for marketing.

Ruthanne Terrero: What are you doing to attract more visitors beyond the sun and sand?

Joy Jibrilu, the Bahamas: We have a multi-pronged approach to tourism. Airlift: You’ve got to get people to your destinations. Product: You’ve got to have a choice of places for people to stay. In the past that was sufficient, but travel is becoming a lot more sophisticated. Visitors want authentic experiences.

So what are we doing to attract visitors? We’ve got to make it as simple as possible for people to get to their destination. If it becomes difficult and complicated, they’ll cross it off their list. In the U.S. market, we’re fortunate that we have direct airlift from about every major hub. So people have that ease of connectivity.

We’re also constantly reinventing through product development. In the Bahamas, we are blessed to have this great resort that’s opening up [Baha Mar]; that brings the spotlight to the destination and it’s good for everybody.

Alejandro Castro, marketing director, Costa Rican Tourism Board; Ellison (Tommy) Thompson, deputy director general of tourism, the Bahamas; John McMahon, EVP/group publisher, Travel Agent magazine; Ruthanne Terrero, VP/editorial director, Travel Agent magazine; Richard Sealy, minister of tourism and international transport, Barbados; Wykeham McNeill, minister of tourism and entertainment for Jamaica; and Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Ministry of Tourism for the Bahamas.
Alejandro Castro, marketing director, Costa Rican Tourism Board; Ellison (Tommy) Thompson, deputy director general of tourism, the Bahamas; John McMahon, EVP/group publisher, Travel Agent magazine; Ruthanne Terrero, VP/editorial director, Travel Agent magazine; Richard Sealy, minister of tourism and international transport, Barbados; Wykeham McNeill, minister of tourism and entertainment for Jamaica; and Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Ministry of Tourism for the Bahamas.

But there are so many other things going on. We’ve really gone into sports tourism in a major way and that’s brought this incredible spotlight on the Bahamas. We recently had the IAFF World Relays and that’s happening again this May. We had some 53 countries represented at that. We had a great team from Jamaica last year. With [the Jamaican sprinter], Mr. Usain Bolt, I understand he says he will be there this year; just that alone brings attention and the spotlight to the destination. We had the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl in December, which attracted ESPN. I’m not an expert on American football, but I understand that the last 10 minutes of it was exceptional. It’s been rated within the top 10 sporting events of 2014, and all of that attracts the spotlight, in a good way, to your destination.

The romance market is major for us. We’ve launched a huge campaign that we’re excited about. It’s simply called 16/16/16/16 — 16 islands, 16 destination weddings that takes place on the 16th of the month at 16:00 hours. It was launched in the United Kingdom, and then recently in the United States. It exposes the Bahamas as more than just Nassau and Paradise Island.

Wykeham McNeill, Jamaica: There are similarities in a lot of the product that we all offer. Great beaches, great sun, sand and sea, and it’s important to have that. In Jamaica, of course, we are looking at the various markets you spoke about: the honeymoon market and certainly the wedding market, which brings in the groups. We are focusing on all segments to enhance our tourism. Certainly, the convention center that opened up in Montego Bay a couple of years ago has added a whole new dimension to our product. Apart from that, there are certain things that Jamaica is so well known for and we have certainly used the opportunity to market them and to market around them. Our products in sports are legendary, and certainly having the fastest man and fastest woman in the world is phenomenal. We have also created a brand called Jamaica House. At all these major events, we put together a venue called Jamaica House where we show off our food, our music and our sports. We bring in the media, operators, travel agents, all of our partners, and it has been hugely successful. We did it in the United Kingdom for the Olympics. We did it in 2012 when we were coming off of four years of negative growth out of the U.K., and the year after we launched Jamaica House — there were other factors that were in play — we went from negative growth to 4.5 percent growth. And certainly last year, in 2014, we were in the double digits. So there’s sports and certainly entertainment like reggae music. This February was the 70th anniversary of the birth of Bob Marley, which was widely carried in the media.

Jamaica’s Wykeham McNeill: “We are focusing on all segments to enhance our tourism. Certainly, the convention center [pictured] that opened up in Montego Bay a couple of years ago has added a whole new dimension to our product.”
Jamaica’s Wykeham McNeill: “We are focusing on all segments to enhance our tourism. Certainly, the convention center [pictured] that opened up in Montego Bay a couple of years ago has added a whole new dimension to our product.”

We still realize that the core business is the relationship with our tour operator partners and travel agents, and certainly our travel specialist programs have been very successful for us. On various levels, we are looking at the things that make Jamaica different.

Richard Sealy, Barbados: As I mentioned earlier, unlike Jamaica and the Bahamas, the U.S. is not our major source market. Truthfully, we probably have a little bit more work to do in the U.S. than, for example, in the U.K. It may be that [the U.S.] has a perception of Barbados perhaps being a little farther away and of course being expensive.

“Eighty percent of our source market is the United States, so this is a huge market and very, very important for the Bahamas.”

—Joy Jibrilu, Director General of the Ministry of Tourism for the Bahamas

As for airlift, Europeans tend to be a little more patient in terms of having to make connections. Americans like to fly direct. We do have to deal with the airlift question; it’s an ongoing discussion with the various players involved. One of the other things, of course, that’s big in the U.S. versus the U.K.: the U.K. tour operator is still basically king, while in the U.S. it’s very much consumer-driven.

Millennials are very much online and we are going into cyberspace in a big way. That will appeal to the Americans. We have been looking at a combination of things. Cricket has led sports tourism for us. That doesn’t mean a whole lot in the U.S. market, so we’ve had to look, for example, for more sports. We have an excellent facility at the Bushy Park raceway where we have “Top Gear” festivals. We’re hoping to have some major, more sport events there. That would move numbers and appeal not only to the U.S. market but also to that younger demographic that we yearn to have in Barbados. We started the Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival with American Express Publishing. That worked out quite well. So a combination of events and developing our niches is quite important. The romance niche, for some reason, we haven’t been as strong there as some of our neighbors, for example, have, so it’s good we had the West Jet YouTube campaign. It worked out quite well.

The MICE market is also important. We have some facilities that are usable that are right there, so we are looking at that. These niches, for sure, will appeal to the Americans.

One of the important things we have done is restructured our public sector. We had the Barbados Tourism Authority and we broke it up into Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. and the Barbados Tourism Product Authority. We are a mature destination and we needed a marketing agency that was nimble and flexible. We are excited about it and even though these are early days, we’ve seen the improvements. The CEO of Barbados Tourism Marketing is not concerned with signing approvals or studying permits, he just has to be concerned with getting people into Barbados.

Barbados’ Richard Sealy: “We’ve actually done quite well in terms of development of villas in a very short space of time. We actually have 2,500 beds right now in those villas and they are very luxurious in some places.” Pictured: Villa Sandalo on Gibbs Beach, St. Peter’s.
Barbados’ Richard Sealy: “We’ve actually done quite well in terms of development of villas in a very short space of time. We actually have 2,500 beds right now in those villas and they are very luxurious in some places.” Pictured: Villa Sandalo on Gibbs Beach, St. Peter’s.

I think that will definitely help us in the U.S. market. We also have the Barbados Tourism Investment agency, which is concerned strictly with getting investment into Barbados, particularly brands. That is another area where we have not generally been very strong. We have Hilton, we have Fairmont, we recently got a Courtyard by Marriott, and of course Sandals has come on line, but, generally speaking, the brands in Barbados are indigenous brands, which is good and important. But you will find that while Europeans and even Canadians tend to find indigenous brands more appealing, Americans are notoriously brand loyal.

“We still realize that the core business is the relationship with our tour operator partners and travel agents and certainly, our travel specialist programs have been very successful for us.”

—Wykeham McNeill, Minister of Tourism and Entertainment for Jamaica

We want to encourage our local entrepreneurs to develop their own individual indigenous brands, but we want to see more international brands coming in as well. We are happy that Wyndham is going to be taking over the old Sam Lord’s Castle. Sandals just opened a property and is looking at another one that they’re going to brand as Beaches. Barbados Tourism Investment Inc. is very much focused on these brands that will have international appeal.

Ruthanne Terrero: Barbados, early on, hosted our 30 Under 30 program of young travel advisors. Every year Travel Agent magazine recognizes the rising stars. Barbados was the first to jump in to host them and bring them down and show them what the island has to offer.

Richard Sealy, Barbados: That wasn’t an accident actually; we need to get people to come to Barbados.

Alejandro Castro, Costa Rica: In December, we launched our “Save the Americans” campaign. Our statement is that Americans are overworked and under-vacationed. We want to make them notice that they’re overworking and that they should stop and go to Costa Rica. We used our animals, which are lovely, to convey the message. We have one with a monkey saying, “You look tired and overworked. I know because we’re family.”

We’re also clear about the X and Y generations. Our numbers tell us that we have way more of these travelers, so we’re doing a lot on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. We’ve been playing on specific dates, so, for example, we have love scenes of sorts for Valentine’s. We’re also using a lot of user-generated content; we have a program to post all the pictures of people that are traveling in our country, enjoying our food. That’s something we are doing to generate more noise. We want to entertain them and for them to have a happy retreat in the happiest country of the world.

The Bahamas’ Joy Jibrilu: “We’re blessed to have this great resort that’s opening up [Baha Mar], that brings the spotlight to the destination and it’s good for everybody.” Pictured: Baha Mar Casino & Hotel.
The Bahamas’ Joy Jibrilu: “We’re blessed to have this great resort that’s opening up [Baha Mar], that brings the spotlight to the destination and it’s good for everybody.” Pictured: Baha Mar Casino & Hotel.

We also know that these generations are very into helping and volunteerism, so we have great programs for that. We have reforestation programs at the hotels, on the beach and in the mountains. It’s very easy. Costa Rica is one of the first countries in the world to have carbon bonds to offset your carbon footprint. We are pioneers in sustainability; it’s in our DNA. We are very clear about where we’re going and that sustainable tourism is the way to go for us. That also gives us the perfect playground for adventure.

“Millennials are very much online and we are going into cyberspace in a big way. That will appeal to the Americans.”

—Richard Sealy, Minister of Tourism and International Transport, Barbados

Ruthanne Terrero: How is Costa Rica handling its infrastructure, as far as new roadways and hotels are concerned?

Alejandro Castro, Costa Rica: We’ve been attracting hotels with a lot of the brands that Americans love, so that’s something good for us. Our main airport, Juan Santamaria International, has a master plan they’re working on. We also have that Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport [in the north], which had a dramatic increase in the number of flights over the last five years. That’s very good because we can have flights from all over.

Regarding hotels, about 80 percent of our hotels are under 30 or 40 rooms. We have a lot of boutique hotels and eco-lodges.

Ruthanne Terrero: Is there a size limitation?

Alejandro Castro, Costa Rica: No, but that’s the way they’ve been developed. Twenty-six percent of our national territory is protected by national parks or private reserves. Massive hotels, they just don’t go with the place. We have places like Playa Hermosa down south, where you need the eco-lodges; we also have some lodges near the Pacuare River, which is one of the best rafting destinations. It’s very difficult to build a big hotel there. It’s in the middle of the jungle; that’s where the eco-lodges are still developing.

Up north in areas like Juan Castro, we have Four Seasons and that’s where the brands are developing. So we have a specific area for that.

Regarding the roads, that’s one of our biggest challenges, but we’re doing very well. It’s been improving in the last few years. We’ve also been working on the borders. Tourists want to have efficient borders, right?

We also have microclimates, so when you go from one place to the other, the climate changes constantly. If you go driving for two hours, it won’t be the same. So that’s something that’s very interesting.

Ruthanne Terrero: Thank you. How are the rest of you evolving your infrastructure, and what are you doing to guide it?

Wykeham McNeill, Jamaica: Certainly over the last few years we’ve done a lot of major work on our main tourism airport in Montego Bay; it has gotten a massive expansion and it’s really a first-rate facility. As we’re growing, there is a constant need to expand, and in Kingston, the expansion process is taking place as we speak.

We completed our North Coast Highway some time ago so the roads cover the length of the island. It’s very nice. We are now in the process of building the North-South Highway, which is going to open up and go from Montego Bay to Kingston.

In Jamaica, we have two major airports in Montego Bay and Kingston and you can get to both quite easily. Now, once we open the North-South Highway, first it’s going to be a three-leg highway. The first leg is complete; the other two legs are said to be completed in early 2017. But what is going to happen is that it is going to now bring all the airports together because it will be an hour across the island. So, any one of the airports at any point in time will be within two hours from each [other]. Which brings all of the airlift into play. At the same time, it brings all the attractions on the south coast of the island into play.

Costa Rica’s Alejandro Castro: “We’ve been attracting hotels with a lot of the brands that Americans love, so that’s something good for us.” Pictured: Riu Palace Costa Rica in Guanacaste.
Costa Rica’s Alejandro Castro: “We’ve been attracting hotels with a lot of the brands that Americans love, so that’s something good for us.” Pictured: Riu Palace Costa Rica in Guanacaste.

We have a very strong indigenous brand at work, Sandals, and they’ve done very well. Right now our strong investment is in place — the Henderson Group just bought a Wyndham in Kingston and they’re expanding quickly. The Sagicor Group is an interesting story; they started off with a property at [Mammee Bay, St. Ann] and over the last two and a half years they’ve bought an additional three hotels. So they’ve gone from one to … four hotels. They bought the Wyndham in Montego Bay and expanded very quickly. So indigenous brands are everywhere and, of course, we have the others who are there. Certainly we have the strong Spanish groups, such as Riu, Iberostar, Bahia Principe, Fiesta, they’re all there and they’re all looking to invest even more. This year, we’ve have some investment. Certainly the local properties, including Sandals and others, have indicated work they intend to do to extend their product in Jamaica. At the same time, this year we are waiting to see the opening of a Courtyard by Marriott, which is being built in Kingston. Moon Palace will be opening in April or May in Ocho Rios. The Melia should be open for next season. That would have an impact for Jamaica. And of course, for this winter, The Hyatt Ziva and Zilara Rose Hall opened in Montego Bay. So there is tremendous investment there. But when I’m meeting with partners or corporations, they say we still need more product. There is such a demand now and you have to translate that demand into investment. In 2013, for the first time, we passed two million stopovers and we just broke the record again last year.

There is a tremendous demand for those who want to invest in Jamaica … at the same time, the open market says there is demand for more Jamaica projects, so we’re trying to pull all of them together.

Ruthanne Terrero: Let’s talk about the Bahamas, where Baha Mar is the big thing, but where there are so many other things going on, I’m sure.

Joy Jibrilu, the Bahamas: Yes there are. In the Bahamas, much of our infrastructure is tied in to tourism development, so there is a direct relationship between the two. What is an asset for us is that we are an archipelagic nation with 700 islands and keys, which also has its challenges. Our recent statistics suggest that we have the highest number of international airports per capita than any other nation in the world. So as a country of 385,000 people, we have 28 international airports that must meet every kind of standard. Nassau Paradise Island saw a recent upgrade of its airport to the tune of $450 million in terms of investments. But we are seeing investment on all our family islands, and we’re talking tens of millions of dollars. If there is an investor that wants to put up a resort, whether it’s a larger scale resort or an eco-lodge, or what have you, we’ve got to have proper road work and we’ve got to have schools [and] medical facilities to support that. So it is a challenge, but we’ve seen infrastructure development take place, ... expansive roadwork is being done.

When we talk about hotel development, similarly to Jamaica, we’ve been fortunate. And a lot of that really is because we’ve been blessed by location. Because of our proximity to the United States, our American investors can be reached within a short period of time — two or three hours to the eastern seaboard.

So, not only are we talking about Baha Mar, which is about to open, we also see The Warwick opening on Paradise Island. Holiday Inn is also opening, and niche and boutique resorts are coming online. People are looking for choice. They don’t want to just go to a mega resort. Tour operators want to know you have a diversity of options and product offerings, and that you offer all-inclusives and family-friendly resorts. So we are actively going to diversify from the very known brands of Atlantis or Baha Mar to the smaller niche boutique, the eco-tourism, and the tourist lodges on the family islands.

Ruthanne Terrero: I know Barbados is always evolving its infrastructure; can you let us know what is happening there?

Richard Sealy, Barbados: Yes, in Barbados, we don’t have a tourism zone, basically, so when you’re speaking about tourism infrastructure, you’re talking about Barbados infrastructure, its 166 square miles and 280,000 citizens. Our infrastructure has earned the reputation of being very good. The road network, the seven highways radiating out from the capital city … the island is totally accessible and it’s relatively flat. Potable water is accessible to almost every single household. Electricity is widely available and hardly goes off and it is not rationed. We have good telecommunications, and so forth. The challenge is maintaining that. The airport, of course, is a good airport, but we only have one. There was a positive view that we could consider a second airport in the north, mainly to cater to probably the smaller, privately owned aircraft. You find that during certain periods that the parking atrium can get a little compact because of all those aircrafts taking up so much space. So maybe there’s room to put a small airstrip in the northern area on the west coast.

In the mean time, we have to get the current airport up to scratch. It is in good shape but there are no jet bridges — we are in discussions about that. Physically challenged people want to travel and those stairwells can be a fairly treacherous experience even for a young, healthy person. So we are getting that in order.

We are looking at other opportunities, such as duty-free shopping for departing, in-transit and air-sea transfer passengers. So that aspect of what to expect from our airport infrastructure has been actively looked at.

Our seaport was built a half century ago basically as a port for the export of sugar. So now we are building a purpose-built cruise facility with the terminal and ferries and so forth that will allow us to develop that aspect of things. Our ports of entry are actively receiving attention from a tourism perspective.

I mentioned that Barbados Tourism Investment is working on bringing in some good brands. I mentioned the Wyndham earlier, but we also have Hyatt coming to Barbados outside the capital at Bridgetown. It’s an area that has not recently been associated with hotel development. By bringing the Hyatt development there, we’re hoping it will encourage other landowners to do similar projects. We can now start to see our room stock increase. The Barbados room stock has been stuck at or around 5,000 or 6,000 for quite some time. And the question of how many of those rooms are usable or up to standard is another debate. We’ve actually done quite well in terms of development of villas in a very short space of time. We have 2,500 beds right now in those villas and they are very luxurious on the west coast of Barbados — Rodeo Drive and even New York would have nothing on them. These are world-class villas. We are trying, from a tourism perspective, to get the developers and managers to put them into the room stock when they’re not being sold. You can appreciate [that] sometimes they are quite expensive. Well, why not rent them out? And we can work with them because it is no different from the bed in the hotel. A bed is a bed.

“We’re also clear about the X and Y generations. Our numbers tell us that we have many more of these travelers, so we’re doing a lot on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.”

—Alejandro Castro, Marketing Director, Costa Rican Tourism Board

We’re finding that villas are very interesting, particularly for groups like an extended family or even two or three families. A villa might actually work out more economically than renting three rooms in a hotel that interconnect, and then you still have to go to the restaurant and so on. A villa, even though it comes with a butler and driver and so on, may work out more cheaply, especially during high season. So it’s an interesting dynamic where we have to take advantage of the infrastructure we have.

But having said that, when we came to office in 2000, we recognized this problem and we have deliberately set out trying to get more hotel rooms because you can’t have a tourism industry without hotels. The villa people sometimes try to suggest that, but you need both.

Ruthanne Terrero: The villa concept is so on trend with multigenerational travel. Some people don’t want to live in inter-connected rooms with their kids for a week. So that’s certainly a fantastic option if you can roll it into the overall room inventory.

Wykeham McNeill, Jamaica: Just to add to his point, while the bulk of the business certainly is in the hotels, what we found is that the ratings from the actual comment cards from villas are off the charts. People love them. They get a three- or four-bedroom villa and a driver. They can have their families come together; they have their kids playing around the pool while they’re sitting and enjoying breakfast ... it really is the place for families.

Ruthanne Terrero: You feel like you’re actually living at the destination for a while. Living like a local, but like a wonderful local.

Joy Jibrilu, the Bahamas: Another trend is that a lot of hotels are now building stand-alone villas because so many people want to have that experience; but they also look at it as an investment opportunity. In the Bahamas, people who buy a villa that is attached to a hotel in some way can put it in a hotel rental pool as a branded villa.

The hotel then has the responsibility of marketing it and looking after it. The incentives that come automatically with the hotel are attached to the villa as long as it’s put into the rental pool... and owners get to enjoy it for so many weeks of the year. That’s also an opportunity and an option to look at because people are enjoying that villa experience. We have found the same thing from our indigenous surveys, that that’s the experience a lot of people are going for now.

Ruthanne Terrero: It’s an interesting change in the dynamics of the hospitality industry.

Richard Sealy, Barbados: It’s no longer seen as a luxury issue now. It actually can work out more economically.

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