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EXCLUSIVE: Interview Hon. Aloun N’dombet-Assamba, Minister of Tourism Jamaica

Ben Kilbey. London.

Hon. Aloun N’dombet-Assamba, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism and Transport, has a certain magic about her. A warm face and one of those smiles that makes you want to smile right back. When she speaks you listen. When it comes to Jamaica Hon. Assamba is passionate, more then passionate, perhaps slightly obsessive. This is what drives the greatness that she is achieving. Jamaica is booming under Hon. Assamba’s guidance. The first quarter of ‘04 saw a figure of 366,085 tourists. That equates to a 7 percent increase over 2003. Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism and transport Aloun Ndombet-Assamba stated, “In the first three months of this year the regions growth has continued with Jamaica seeing a 7 percent increase. April was a bumper month, as stop-over arrivals in Jamaica increased by 17.5 percent.” As we sat on the veranda at the Ritz Carlton in Jamaica’s Montego Bay, more affectionately known as Mo’Bay, a gentle breeze washed over us. It was apt to open the conversation with a question regarding the new flight that had touched down only a few days ago (2/05/03) from Brussels. “Well, this is a weekly flight that we are sharing with the Dominican Republic run by the private sector, Caribbean Vacations. The company went out and negotiated it themselves” said the Minister. The flight brought in 135 passengers and proved that the Caribbean is popular with Europeans.

“Is this an indication that you wish to open up the European market?” I quizzed. “Yes, definitely. You know we also had the inaugural flight from Air Madrid the following day bringing in guests for RIU which opened on the Thursday, yes the flight came in on Wednesday for the new RIU resort in Negril.” With that the Hon. Assamba enabled one of her trade mark wide smiles. These are obviously buoyant days.

“The Spanish are invading once again,” I quipped (laughter), Hon. Assamba beamed and let out a broad grin. “Well as I see it the is the Spanish are upon us again, if you bear in mind our rich history, but this time they have brought their own money which is wonderful for us. It is clear that the Spanish chains have seen Jamaica as a country they want to invest in, we have a number of chains doing as RIU have done who are either building or negotiating to find properties that they can take over, or existing properties they can build on” she commented.

I continued the conversation with the interest switched to the amount of money the Spanish were investing. “I hear the investment is around the 550-600 million US dollar mark. Is that just in Jamaica?” I asked. “Yes, just in Jamaica, we are currently working with the Pinera group who are building three properties along the coast. Then there is Iberostar who just got approval for their property that they are building on the North coast. We are also in discussion with Barcelo, actually Barcelo started discussions a few years ago but they had a hiatus, a disagreement in their own company, but they are back now and ready to go on.” Leaning towards how many years the investment would be spread over Hon. Assamba indicated; “We expect the investments to be complete in 6-7 years. RIU started out about 2 and half years ago and they have completed their second property.”


Things are certainly looking positive on Jamaica. Rooms are full and initiatives are spilling from every hill.

“2004 is set to be a bumper year. If you were here at JAPEX then you would have seen a lot of business being done. Our numbers are showing growth, reports are we expect the 2004 winter season to be really good. What has been good also, from a government perspective, is that we want to position Jamaica as an all-year round destination not just a winter one - although we know that this is very important too - but we want to sell Jamaica during the summer months.”

“Our hotels are putting into play programs to entice families. For instance last summer the Wyndham Rose Hall had a promotion with Sponge Bob and it filled their hotel, this year they are doing something different. So we are looking for programmes to fill the hotels during the summer which is traditionally the slow season (April through November).” The Minister belives that the country is a year round destination and she is keen to expose it in such a manner. Good business considering the majority of the Caribbean struggles during the low season.

One big debate in the Caribbean is the need perhaps for a regional carrier (air). A unification of sorts that unites the island nations and enables a more reliable and satisfactory airlift. Hon. Assamba understands that this would be a wonderful proposition but also foresees a difficulty in acquiring the correct funding for such a dynamic project.

“I think, from my point of view, that this is needed. Part of the challenge we have, and this is in relation to CARICOM and the Caribbean now, is that it is easier for people to go to North America then to travel the islands. It is more costly for people to travel around the Caribbean then to go to North America. It would be good if we could have a Caribbean airline but you know airlines all over the world are suffering all kinds of problems, the cost of running an airline for example, I am not sure that it would be possible, at this particular time, that the Caribbean governments have the financial resources to do that, I know it is something that has been explored.”

“I don’t think we are at a point where we can make a decision or a decision can be made just now.” With this Hon. Assamba begun talking of the regional airlift already in existence. “We have three indigenous airlines servicing the Caribbean now, Air Jamaica, BWIA and LIAT and of course Caribbean Star, so sorry four. Each has their own problems. To bring them together is a political decision that would take a certain amount of (hesitation, then laughter), I am not even sure what it would take, because while we are trying to come together as a region there are certain issues that require more discussion. But for the region airlift is very important.”

In order to get people to the Caribbean it is vastly important to market the region correctly and to target the right audience. The Minister believes it is not always easy to market Jamaica cost effectively and sometimes the money isn’t there at all. For this reason Hon. Assamba is very keen to highlight the fact that there is no point marketing a product if the goods cannot be delivered.

“I keep saying when people ask me about marketing such as ‘why we are not advertising in certain regions’ it makes no sense to advertise in regions where you cannot back it up with the airlift, which is why I am very pleased to see the amount of airlift coming in from Europe, as a government we try as much as we can to give some financial support to the airlift. Some times we are not able to do so as much as we would like to do, and so it is very good to see when the private sector goes in without the benefit of the government’s financial support and brings in the charters like we saw last week.”

“We gave some support in terms of advertising but that is it, at least with the flights that have started to come in recently.”

With this I pounced with the most obvious question to spring to mind; “Does this mean you are expecting more flights to come in from the UK and Europe?”

“We are in discussions with some other companies for airlift from the UK but I cannot speak about this at this time.” That was that. There could be something very interesting about to come to fruition but for now the Ministers lips are sealed.

I quickly moved the flow to another subject, one much closer to home. Bare in mind how large the proportion of US visitors arriving in the Caribbean. “How important is the European market to Jamaica and yourself?”

“The European market is very important to us, it is extremely important to us we want to move the percentage of our market, right now we are split 70 percent US 30 percent the rest of the world, we want to change the percentage in favour of the European market. We want to grow.”

“Going back to the point of advertising,” continyed Hon. Assamba; “many people ask about advertising in Europe, the European market is not like the American market you do not approach it in the same way. I try to get people in Jamaica to understand that building the business in Europe is different from the US.”

“Would you say it is a lot more aggressive in the US?” I asked

“I think so. It is a different approach.”

Initiatives were big news at last months JAPEX (Jamaican Product Exchange), and one that caused the biggest stir was My Jamaica, I asked the Minister about her views on the matter.

“I am very excited about My Jamaica. As a government working with the private sector we identified three clusters that we think could drive the economy, tourism being one cluster, entertainment and agri-processing (agriculture) being the other two. These are very closely inter-linked. Agriculture is very closely linked to tourism because of that we have 87 farms and individuals who are involved in the tourism sector and we are bringing them together for My Jamaica, this is to promote a different aspect of this wonderful island.”

“I was in the branding workshop at CHTIC and My Jamaica is a form of branding, taste it, feel it, experience it! It is an alternative view of Jamaica, not limiting Jamaica to being an all-inclusive destination but a destination with sights and sounds and tastes and smells and off the beaten track and reggae and Mento (African rhythm from which reggae evolved). My Jamaica is aiming to give visitors a really personal holiday. For instance a tour guide who is assigned to a visitor for their whole stay. I am very excited as it is one of those projects that I co-chair.”

From the more home grown product I moved the conversation to the higher end of the market. I asked about the Caribbean Escapes Collection, a new ‘by invitation only’ marketing program featuring the most distinguished resorts in 25 Caribbean destinations. The Collection consists of award-winning, four-plus and five-star resort properties, which have been recognised by travel authorities and heralded by jet setters from around the world. Jamaica hotels include Half Moon Bay, Ritz-Carlton Rosehall, Round Hill Resort & Villas, The Tryall Club, Goldeneye, Jake’s, Strawberry Hill, Jamaica Inn, and Sandals Royal Caribbean.

“How excited are you about Caribbean Escapes?”

“We have a number of up scale properties in Jamaica who are a brand name on their own, not that they are part of a chain, who are very excited. Did you know that tourism started in Jamaica with the upscale market? When tourism started in Jamaica it was only the very wealthy that came to Jamaica. Because of this we are very conscious that we have a variety of markets to cater to; up-market, all-inclusive and the all-inclusive that caters more to the high end.”

“Its great that individual properties with their own brand have come together to market themselves (HalfMoon, Round Hill, Jamaica Inn, Tryall). What I wanted to speak about is that they are individual properties with their own brand but they have realised the need or the benefit of a joint marketing effort in that particular market, they have very, very good repeat guests, they are always full.”

From here the Minister moved to the possibilities of hotels and resorts coming together to market themselves.”

“Along the strip here (Montego Bay) we have three golf courses that are not marketing as three golf courses but instead as 56 holes. These are Wyndam, HalfMoon and Ritz Carlton. I think it is great that people are coming together to achieve the same goal”

One very important area in the Caribbean is the spa market. Virtually every hotel that wants to expand its customer base is building or expanding their spa. The Minister was very aware of this.

“The spa market is very exciting. Up-scale, and even smaller resorts, are building spas to raise their levels. I get a lot of incentive requests from companies wishing to build a spa, or improving their existing spa. We have some very well know spas, Strawberry Hill and Ritz Carlton to name some. Most hotels are now putting in a spa. Lots more now realise how important spas are, I mean if you are a business traveller then you may need a massage after a long day, if your are on holiday you want a spa, spas are doing very well, I mean a lot of them are fully booked right now.”

Hon. Asamba moved on to discuss the uniqueness of certain spas in the Caribbean.

“A whole different area we could talk about is the use of traditional medicines. Traditional healing processes, this goes hand-in-hand with the spas. Some of the smaller properties are specialised and have treatments that are tried and true Jamaican. Using ‘erbs and roots and shrubs out of our traditional Indian and African heritage. We have our own spa industry that does for example oils and aromatherapy products for instance; Star Fish Oils and Blue Mountain Products. This is very unique to Jamaica”

Spas certainly are the future with regards to the tourism sector. Statistics show that more and more individuals want to pampered and are willing to pay for the privilege. As the conversation was coming to a close I decided to finish on an important note. One Chris Blackwell. At JAPEX he was awarded the Life Time Achievement award for his out standing contributions to Jamaica and tourism in Jamaica. I asked Hon. Assamba why Chris was so special to the Caribbean island?

“You know, I think we have been blessed to have people such as Chris Blackwell who have Jamaican connections, in Chris’s case more than Jamaican connections, and who have decided that they are going to invest in Jamaica. Right now Chris has sold some properties abroad to invest in Goldeneye and other projects, I am very excited about this. He has a view about the kind of property that he wants to be associated with the Island Outpost name and it falls right in line with our need to have Jamaica seen as a destination that offers you any kind of property that you want. Island Outpost properties are small, exclusive and provide a high level of personalised service. It is excellent, I am very pleased, I am very pleased that he got an award. You know I reminded him on stage that this is the second time I have given him an award this one and last year from the University of Technology recognising just the difference that he has brought to the industry. That is how important Chris is to Jamaica.”

With that I glimpsed another warming smile and shook the Ministers hand I thanked her for her time and pondered just how significant Mr. Blackwell is to the island, and how different things could have been without his magical touch. Bless.

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