It was like an episode of Top Chef Canada.
Not just because attendees got to steam-up skillets and flex their cooking muscles – but because an actual winner of the popular reality TV series was there to join in on the fun.
The Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) welcomed travel advisors, trade media, as well as reps from airlines and tour operators at Cirillo's Academy in Toronto Wednesday night (June 14) for a group cooking class – with Tre Sanderson, winner of Top Chef Canada Season 10, being one notable guest.
But also spotted in the crowd of travel pros, which gathered at stations to chop garlic, butterfly shrimp and prepare Jamaican beef patties, was another bold-faced name: Donovan White, director of tourism for the JTB, who’s in town this week for meetings.
“Whenever we have our director visiting, we always have to up the bar,” said Angella Bennett, the JTB’s regional director for Canada, welcoming guests to the food-prep party. “This evening is all about breaking bread, and the best way to do that is break bread ourselves.”
In between handshakes and hellos, Mr. White took a moment to answer questions from the group and share destination updates.
Canadian numbers are “very good”
In terms of Canadian arrivals to Jamaica: “The numbers are very good,” White said.
This year, from January to May, Jamaica has already received 177,000 Canadian visitors (which is impressive given that the destination ended 2022 with 256,000).
This summer, Jamaica’s aircraft from Canada, measured in seat capacity from May to August, sits at 136,000 seats, which is an increase of 20 per cent.
When you calculate the average load factors, which White pegged at about 86-87 per cent, Jamaica will likely see about 120,000 visitors from Canada this summer, he said.
“Which is more than we did last year. That trend is extremely aggressive,” the director said, forecasting that Jamaica should end the year with about 360,000 Canadians.
That, White said, would outperform the island’s last record-setting year for Canada back in 2016.
Restored routes & Swoop
This winter, Air Transat, notably, will be restoring flights to Montego Bay from Halifax – a well-performing route that was brought back last winter. It will start on Feb. 19.
Caribbean Airlines, too, is adding more lift between Toronto and Kingston.
Starting July 2, in addition to Wednesdays, there will be a new return flight from Kingston to Toronto on Sundays, adding some 160 seats per week.
Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing also serve Jamaica, as does ultra-low-cost carrier Swoop – at least until the carrier is integrated into WestJet’s mainline at the end of October.
Swoop offers a healthy selection of seats to Jamaica – from Toronto to Montego Bay and Kingston, for example. And they’re popular routes, both with vacationers and the Jamaican diaspora.
White wouldn’t speculate on what the future holds for Swoop’s Jamaica flights, post-integration, but recognized that the WestJet Group, ultimately, is looking to consolidate.
“I’ve worked through at least seven mergers on my own, in different industries. I have a clear sense of what happens,” White told the room. “They're after efficiencies, and wherever that flies, that's where it will land.”
New hotels & brands
In hotel land, there’s a slew of new properties in Jamaica to look forward to.
As Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, noted earlier this year, the destination is looking to add 15,000 rooms over the next three to five years.
Of that 15,000 rooms, there’s already 3,500 rooms in production, White said, noting the biggest producer, the Princess Hotel, which is constructing some 2,000 rooms in Green Island, Hanover, on the northwestern tip of Jamaica.
This property is slated to open its first 1,000 rooms in February of 2024, he said.
There’s also the all-new 260-room Sandals Dunn’s River, which unbolted its doors with an opening party last month – a gathering that White attended.
“It’s the new jewel of Sandals,” White said, paraphrasing Adam Stewart, executive chairman of Sandals Resorts. “Just imagine the beauty of what you've come to know at Sandals, and times it by ten.”
RIU is building the 650-room Hotel RIU Palace Aquarelle in Falmouth, the capital city of Trelawny. It’s set to open in April 2024.
AIC Hotel Group is also building a property in Montego Bay, which will add 1,700 rooms across three brands – UNICO being one of them, which should be completed by late 2024.
There are other projects in various stages of approvals, including a new Secrets in Saint Ann, where Karisma is also set to build, White revealed.
Meanwhile, Viva Wyndham is constructing a new property in Negril.
“A lot of them are new brands – brands that weren't there before, which is great for the destination in terms of diversity,” White said.
Villas are also paving the way for the creation of what’s being dubbed “The Jamaican Riviera.”
With the pandemic bringing about a revival in villas, “Jamaica is now leading the way in providing new and exciting villa experiences for tourists across the region,” said Minister Bartlett, speaking at the opening of a $1.3 billion-dollar development, Bengal Cove Villas, in Discovery Bay in March.
Highway & airport upgrades
Road and airport upgrades are also underway.
There’s a new piece of highway from Harbour View in Kingston to Port Antonio that’s about 70 per cent complete.
The road upgrades in Port Antonio, which primarily consists of EP-plan hotels and villas, has “opened up new thinking” among investors who either own property or land in the area, White said.
There are no plans to build an airport in Port Antonio, but there are discussions about adding an airstrip for smaller aircraft for intra-island flights, the director said.
Makeover at MBJ
Meanwhile, Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay (MBJ) is going through a three-phase redevelopment - the first of which expanded runways to accommodate larger aircraft and more parking spaces.
The second phase involved remodelling the airport's departure side.
“I think they’re going to win an award this year,” White said. “It’s fantastic. The flow, the aesthetic, the commercialization inside, and availability of brands, is at an all-time high.”
A “signature waiting area” has also be opened – a Bob Marley restaurant, operated by the team at Margaritaville, which features a 360-degree video screen.
Speeding up entry
The arrival side of MBJ remains a “pain point,” White said, noting that a new design has been established and that renovations will begin soon.
Part of the plan, White said, is to introduce eGates for Jamaican passport holders, which will process some travellers faster and, in turn, speed up the system for everyone else.
One recommendation that’s been made for Jamaica’s electronic entry form is to include a field that accepts emails so that when visitors complete the form online, they receive an emailed response with a verification code.
The idea is that when visitors get to immigration in Jamaica, they won’t have to complete a physical form and can exit the airport faster, White said.
“We got confirmation on that yesterday,” White said. “The [new process] allows us to have more control, but it also verifies the traveller because they’ve entered a code. It’s like trying to enter your bank account.”
The JTB reiterated the importance of partnerships and travel advisors. Cooking, in fact, has played a role in the tourism board’s engagement with the trade.
In April, the JTB launched a year-long cooking challenge that invites travel advisors to prepare a Jamaican recipe at home for a chance to win delicious prizes each month.
Stay tuned for more updates from Jamaica as the destination will host its 2023 travel and tourism show, JAPEX, in Montego Bay from Sept. 11 to 13.
Visit and "like" PAXnews.com's Facebook page here to see more pictures from the event!