Jamaica has seen a sudden surge in bookings from Brits following sprinter Usain Bolt's success in the London Olympics, tourism minister Dr Wykeham McNeill told delegates attending the island's annual travel trade exhibition in the resort of Ocho Rios.
Travel from the UK to Jamaica was down 5% up to May this year, but Dr McNeill said bookings had been picking up since the Games. Virgin Holidays alone has seen an 8% increase for summer 2013, he said.
Virgin Atlantic has now agreed to extend its new third weekly flight from Gatwick to Montego Bay, launching next month, into a year-round service. It was originally due to operate only during the peak winter period. TUI will also add a second fortnightly charter in November.
Elizabeth Fox and Dr McNeill
Elizabeth Fox, Jamaica Tourist Board regional director for the UK & Ireland, said: "Athletics has put Jamaica on the map, bookings have suddenly picked up. Bolt's success in the Olympics has completely reversed the trend."
She said one tour operator told her forward bookings for summer 2013 had gone from being 18% down year on year before London 2012 to 45% up since the Games.
A new Sports Tourism Committee, set up by Jamaica's tourism minister, is hoping to attract more UK-based amateur sports clubs, schools and county teams to the island for sports-based tours and coaching.
However, hoteliers attending the Jamaica Product Exchange (JAPEX), which was postponed several months due to the Olympics, were clearly concerned that the so-called "Bolt effect" will be short-lived unless the UK government reduces air passenger duty on flights to the Caribbean.
Evelyn Smith, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association said: "Our members are saying that since last year UK business has gone down. There's a tremendous amount of hope that the additional interest we have seen since the Games will result in tangible returns for Jamaica, but it is too soon to know if this will be sustained in the long-term."
One Kingston-based hotelier attending JAPEX said she wasn't optimistic. "Maybe some people will come to see where Bolt trains in Kingston, but I don't think the Bolt effect will be far reaching. Our UK business is still not as vibrant as it was."
Some large hotels have cut their prices to compensate for APD - and some UK tour operators have offered short-term promotions to stimulate demand - but Smith said smaller properties were unable to reduce their prices without harming their product.
Instead they are looking to other markets, such as Canada, Latin America and other countries in Europe such as France and the Czech Republic to take up the slack.
Canada has already replaced the UK as Jamaica's second largest market - and travel overall to Jamaica was 3% up at the end of May - but the UK remains important to Jamaica as British visitors stay longer and so spend more, said Smith. "It is particularly important in the summer months," she said.
Dr McNeill said he was still hopeful APD on flights to Jamaica would be reduced, even though the Chancellor George Osborne has repeatedly refused requests to place the Caribbean in a lower tax band.
"We are still talking to MPs, we have great support, and we are still optimistic that at some point something will be done about it," he said.
by Linsey McNeill
Monday, October 8, 2012