New Arab Gateway: Jamaica opening to Middle East tourists

Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett is pushing to make Jamaica the hub for Arab tourists to the America’s, while wooing them to see Jamaica as the destination of choice to spend tourist dollars.

Bartlett, who spoke to the Caribbean Business Report while in transit from London on Wednesday, said the aim is to tap more into the luxury markets with big spenders and to get airlines and cruise lines in the Middle East to work together on Jamaican soil in a move which could change the face of tourism in the country and the region.

Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett (right) and Captain Ibrahim Koshy, CEO of Saudia Airlines, shake hands to seal the deal. Looking on is Senator Aubyn Hill, Minister Without Portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. The occasion was a meeting to discuss plans for Saudia Airlines to expand flights to Jamaica by summer 2022. Ministers Bartlett and Hill were in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to explore investment opportunities and boost tourism travel to Jamaica.

“The new markets after COVID-19 are going to be the oil-rich countries of the Middle East, primarily the Emirates and Saudi Arabia,” Bartlett outlined. He said Saudia Airlines — the Saudi Arabian flag carrier — will expand its services to Jamaica by next summer. The minister had previously announced flights will be coming to the country early next year by way of the Dubai-based Emirates airline.

Bartlett added that Jamaica has been leveraging its position at the centre of the Caribbean in talks to attract more tourists from the Middle East. “We have to position Jamaica, because of its strategic geographic location in the Americas as the natural hub for transiting passengers who wish to go into Central and South America and some areas of North America,” he said, before adding that possibilities for cruise tourism were part of the negotiations.

A Saudi Airlines craft on the tarmac.

“We are not only talking about aviation, but we are also discussing cruise as well with the possibility of expanding home porting with a big cruise partner out of Dubai. So we had talks with DP World and they are the big hub for the Emirates for tourists coming out of Europe. They only operate for a few months of the year, so the possibility for partnering with Emirates airline to move traffic into the Caribbean for cruising is a big one and we have entered into that discussion also. We see Jamaica not just being a hub for aviation but also for home porting for cruise passengers coming out of Europe and the Middle East into the Caribbean.” Like the flights, Bartlett said cruises from the Middle East should start next summer. He added that the aim is to get DP World to operate cruises with tourists flown in by Emirates airline without adding further detail, citing the sensitivity of the talks at the moment.

Bartlett, who has been to North America, the Middle East and the UK in the last five weeks to shore up the Jamaican market and seek new business, said the engagement has been “the single most successful marketing I have ever done as a minister.” He said it was part of realising the dream of making Jamaica an aviation and cruise hub for the region and to build out the multi-destination tourism concept that has been proposed for several years now. A multi-destination strategy — one in which a tourist could make one booking for up to five destinations — is being pursued with Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Panama. The minister said Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador have expressed interest in being part of the arrangement.

Shoppers maintain social distancing while forming a long queue for access to an Ikea AB store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Photo: Tasneem Alsultan/Bloomberg)

Outbound tourists from the Middle East have been growing rapidly in recent years, but the destination of choice so far is Europe andm in particular, the United Kingdom. A UNWTO report shows that in 2017, Middle Eastern tourists spent approximately US$61 billion on travel with 50 per cent spending from seven to 15 nights on average at their destinations.

The tourism minister said the engagement is not just about the Middle East. For him, that region is the gateway to Africa, South East Asia and Asia Minor — Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan were some destinations he mentioned by name — that Jamaica is eyeing for more tourists.

“We are also looking for investments out of the area. There are large hotels owners and operators and big real estate developers that myself and Minister Aubyn Hill have had discussions with already. I dont want to call names because the discussions are ongoing. UAE and Saudi Arabia not just for tourism but other areas of the economy.”

The minister said discussions are being held with a view to have the Arabs invest in logistics, infrastructure, housing, new ports and operations in the Caymanas Economic Zone.