Interview With Basil Smith Director of Tourism for the Jamaica Tourist Board

This month we interview Basil Smith Director of Tourism for the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB). We talk to him about the “Brand Jamaica”, eco-tourism, heritage tours, marketing to the Diaspora and the future initiatives of the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB).

Q: You were recently appointed to this post. When did you take up office and what are your main goals?

I took up office on November 1, 2006. My main goals include :

To achieve better use of information technology in the advancement of the JTB’s operations and achieving its marketing goals worldwide,

To achieve a more balanced ratio between our supply markets. In the past, we were dependent on the nearby USA for as much as 80% of our visitors. You can appreciate how easy it is to become complacent, being so close to one of the world’s most productive tourism markets. However, should anything go wrong, as they did on 9/11, that could prove disastrous. We have been able to reduce that dependence to somewhere around 75%. It would be good to see that held at around 65%.

Most importantly, I am determined to continue to increase arrivals to Jamaica from all viable markets.

Q: There is constant “talk” about marketing “Brand Jamaica”. What is the role of the JTB in this marketing thrust? What are the goals outlined by the JTB to achieve this brand awareness?What tangibles have been achieved to date?

In the most basic sense, a brand is a certificate of assurance of quality. It communicates certain consistent values which are of worth to a potential consumer.

The JTB has always promoted Brand Jamaica from a tourism perspective. Our role is to continue to market the destination as the premier destination of the region. Brand Jamaica has proved very resilient from a tourism perspective and stands today as one of the most recognized tourism destination brands in the world.

We recognize, however, that there are other elements to Brand Jamaica and as such have worked closely with Jamaica Trade and Invest (formerly, JAMPRO) to ensure that our different messages compliment each other. This is an ongoing effort on the part of both agencies and in fact the mandate that we have been given to coordinate more has resulted in the both of us entering new markets in a collaborative way. We have had trade missions together to China, India, United Kingdom, Ireland and parts of Europe and the United States and this will continue.

Q: Jamaicans visit Jamaica each year to see family and friends. Jamaicans returning to Jamaica as “tourists” is an untapped market. What are the plans by JTB to be more inclusive of the Diaspora market other than “word of mouth” encouragement?

The VFR, or visiting friends and family market is hardly untapped by Jamaica. A significant number of our visitors fall into that category. The JTB recognizes the importance of this valuable market, as Jamaica’s Diaspora belongs to us and no one else. The fact is, the Jamaican Diaspora of North America and the UK made up more than 6% of travel to the island in 2006. In the past year we have focused marketing efforts in targeted communities in North America around particular times of the year in order to increase travel and more importantly, to develop the relationship with that group. We intend to continue these activities and expand to the UK where the Diaspora market is particularly strong. We have seen very positive results which have encouraged us to continue and in fact do more and no longer rely on the “word of mouth” strategy.

Q: What initiatives will you put in place to attract them?

We conduct Come Home for the Holidays campaigns at Christmas and Easter,
We also conduct a Come Home for Independence campaign, and
We also rely heavily on the Diaspora for attendance at our major musical events each year.

Q: Would advertising more in the community be a part of that plan?

Our worldwide advertising program already includes a component targeted at the Diaspora market. Placement of course is very strategic, as with all other niche groups, for the greatest effect. This program has been successful, based on the response to the initiatives of the past year, as evidenced by feedback and arrival figures. We have relied heavily on radio up to now, but intend to add greater emphasis on print going forward.

Q: The recent CTO signing of a non-Caribbean/non-black PR agency has caused some controversy in New York. The apparent belief is that Caribbean and black-owned PR agencies never seem to win contracts from Caribbean tourist agencies. Jamaica’s record is no different. What do you say to those people?

The JTB does not select PR agencies based on race, but based on track record, experience and demonstrated capability. We tend to think that a Canadian, US or English agency will be better able to function on our behalf in their native markets. This principle is applied too in markets like China, Japan and India where we have a presence.

We also insist with our agencies, where possible, that in order to maintain the Jamaican connection in the relevant market that these agencies that act on our behalf, have a Jamaican on the account in order to ensure even greater sensitivities in the marketplace. This is so now in the USA and UK.

Q: There are a number of reported stories in the press regarding hotel developers building without the proper permits. It is the concern of numerous Jamaican environmental advocates that the country while on a path of “development” is not taking into consideration proper environmental practices – what are your thoughts on these press stories?

There are no reported cases of development taking place without the relevant permits from the identified authorities. In recent times, the NGOs, judiciary and the public at large have become more aware of the impact of development on the environment, especially with the amendment to the Act in the 1990’s.

While claims have been made of particular developments receiving permits without proper due process, the fact is that with the pressure of the NGOs and the relevant authorities, these cases were in fact addressed before final permits were granted. In the case of Grand Bahia Principe, the concerns were recognized and addressed.

There has been no wonton development without permission, as it might have been implied and in fact there are multiple agencies involved in this area for the protection of the environment. Some include :

Parish Councils, Water Resources Authority, National Resource Conservation Authority, National Environmental Protection Agency and the Forestry Department.

The National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) website lists the various Environmental Impact Assessments that have been done and the permits that have been confirmed.

Q: What are the plans for eco-tourism?

Eco-Tourism in Jamaica is still in the early stages of development. We have to be very specific about what is defined as an Eco-Tourism product before we proceed with promoting this product. The process of definition has started between the Ministry and NEPA including the agreement of criteria for products to be considered eco-tourism products:

  1. Must be within a protected or eco-sensitive area
  2. Must have an element of conservation
  3. Must be linked to community development of have some benefit to the community in which it operates
  4. Formal standards of operation of eco-tourism products are to be included in the revised JTB Act.
  5. Products currently defined as Eco-Tourism offerings include :

The Cockpit Country Adventure Tour

Blue Mountain Trail

Bowden Penn Cunha Cunha Trail
Q: What are the plans for Heritage Marketing?

Based on the Mater Plan for Tourism Development, the agencies which fall under the Ministry of Tourism Entertainment & Culture are operating more coordinated in order to ensure that the product of Heritage Tourism is broad-based and far-reaching.

The JTB has consistently used elements of Jamaica’s heritage in its advertising and will continue to do so based on the fact that more travelers are looking for more than just sun, sand and sea. In fact, the current JTB advertising campaign infuses these elements as these are what distinguish us from the other destinations of the region.

Our advertising campaigns will continue to include elements of our heritage and the JTB continues to collaborate with agencies responsible for the preservation of heritage; including the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, Institute of Jamaica, and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, among others. These agencies all form part of the Ministry of Tourism Entertainment & Culture for the very reason that we ensure in the development of Tourism, the preservation of our Culture and Heritage.

Q: Do you see the recent passage of Hurricane Dean affecting Jamaica’s winter season?

The passage of Hurricane Dean recently did some damage to the tourism product, particularly on the South Coast, but we expect all those properties to be up and back in the race in October. The resort areas of Negril, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Kingston had minor damage and those areas have in fact seen things returned to normal in less than a week. We have invested a lot of effort in communicating this point with the trade worldwide so that they know we are open for business. We have been in touch with our tour operators and travel agent partners and so far, there is no indication of major effects on the winter season. Immediately following the hurricane there were some cases of changes of dates made to reservations and a few cancellations, but we have seen now where things have normalized.

Q: Do you see the upcoming elections affecting Jamaica’s winter season?

The last general election (2002) saw little or no impact on the tourism product. We expect that this upcoming election will be no different. While the visibility of both parties have been significantly higher and the campaigns vibrant, I believe that Jamaicans have come a long way from the politics of yesteryear. While we are watching it closely and are ensuring we are prepared in the event we need to respond to any public relations issues, we are confident that there should be little or no impact on the winter season.

Q: What are the bookings looking like for the winter season?

We anticipate a good winter. As regards between now and then, we are now in discussion with our national airline and the hotel sector to develop a Fall program that will make travel to Jamaica exceptionally attractive. Fall is regarded as a “shoulder season”, coming as it does between the summer and winter periods, in which business is better. We generally have to “sweeten the pot” a bit and we will be making an announcement in that regard soon.