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Friday,  April 12, 2024 7:49 PM 

What's the word in Jamaica? The JTB, hotels, partners share the latest updates

What's the word in Jamaica? The JTB, hotels, partners share the latest updates
L to R: Donovan White, director, The Jamaica Tourist Board, Sangster International Airport, Mystic Mountain's signature bobsled ride.
Christine Hogg

Christine Hogg is the Associate Digital Editor at PAX Global Media. Prior to joining PAX, she obtained her Honours BA in Journalism from the University of Toronto. Upon graduating, she went on to write for several travel publications while travelling the world. Her longest trip was a three-week stint in Europe, and the shortest was a 16-hour adventure in Iceland. Get in touch:

On July 29th, the Jamaica Tourist Board, alongside several top tourism partners, held a virtual press conference to provide an overall update on how suppliers and tourism partners are preparing to welcome visitors back to the island once more.

Joining international trade media were Marsha Mattos Esmie, director, resort sales Mystic Mountain, Oliver Cargill, restaurant manager, Skylark Hotels, Kyle Mais, general manager, The Jamaica Inn Hotel, Marsha Ann Donaldson-Brown, director of romance, Sandals Resorts, Nicholas Watson, head of international smiles, VIP Attractions, and Sharon Hislop-Holt, manager, commercial business development  and marketing, MBJ Airports.

Jamaica's borders have been open as of June 15th. Since then, the country has been working with health officials to ensure that the destination is safe for visitors. Most recently, on July 17th, Jamaica revised its entry requirements to travellers from high-risk destinations. Those individuals will be required to upload negative COVID-19 PCR test results prior to travel. 

All other visitors will still be required to complete an online Travel Authorization form.

"Jamaica is known as a larger than life destination because of our culture, our personalized service, our music, our attractions, and our food," said Donovan White, director, The Jamaica Tourist Board. "We know that these are the passion points that visitors desire most, and it's crucial that we preserve these experiences in their natural form as best as we can."

White shared that while travel was off the table, the JTB took an aggressive approach to marketing the destination via social media, making sure that Jamaica stayed top of mind for would-be visitors, once the island opened back up. 

From cooking sessions to live DJ sessions, White says the feedback on the virtual engagement was met with enthusiasm.

Jamaica continues to mandate the wearing of masks in public spaces, including public resort spaces, as well as encourage proper sanitization and physical distancing.

"We cannot eliminate risk entirely; until there is mass access to a vaccine for COVID-19, so for now, we must use our available resources to strategically manage and mitigate the risk as we restart our economy and bring back full productivity and capacity as quickly as possible," White shared.

During the virtual debrief, Individuals were split up into smaller groups, allowing each supplier to share their most pressing updates.

Here's what we found out:

Mystic Mountain

Mystic Mountain, located in the heart of Ocho Rios, is an environmentally-friendly attraction that prides itself on offering unique off-the-resort experiences for visitors to Jamaica.

There are three experiences: Sky Explorer, which takes guests 700 metres above sea level in a chairlift; Rainforest Bobsled Jamaica, the park's signature attraction, a 1,000 metre long ride along a bobsled track, and the zipline, which takes visitors through the rainforest canopy.

"We're only open on weekends right now," shared Marsha Mattos Esmie, director, resort sales Mystic Mountain. "But travel advisors should note that for hotels, we're open on Wednesdays, too."

Esmie also shared that due to physical distancing guidelines, the capacity for the park has been sliced in half, so those looking to visit Mystic Mountain in the near future should make a reservation.

"Usually our maximum capacity is 1,400 people, but due to COVID-19, we've capped it at 900," Esmie explained. "We stagger groups from 8 AM to 12:30 p.m., and then again from 12:30 p.m. to 5PM. We're operating 70 per cent capacity; the reason is we don’t want to go too high in our numbers is so we can do social distancing safely."

Esmie also shared that Mystic Mountain's PlaySafe protocols are in effect. This includes extensive health and safety training for all staff, frequent temperature checks for staff and all guests, and the implementation of electronic waiver signing, which eliminates touchpoints between shared pens. The company also uses its in-house MESS (Mystic Electrostatic Spraying System) sanitization to wipe down every single ride before and after each guest.

Mystic Mountain is sold by Rainforest Adventures, and also works with Island Routes.

Skylark Negril

A guestroom at Skylark Negril.

Skylark Negril is a boutique, family-friendly property with just 28 rooms—perfect for social distancing, joked Oliver Cargill, restaurant manager, Skylark Hotels.

Located on the famous Seven Mile beach, Skylark's sister hotel, The Rockhouse, is located 10 minute away on Negril’s Cliffs.

"Right now, 75 per cent of our rooms are booked," shared Cargill. "But we always keep a few empty, for a few reasons."

Prior to COVID-19, guests from The Rockhouse often came over to Skylark to use the beach, and, given that Skylark does not have a pool, vice versa; guests could go over to use the pool at no cost. Skylark guests can still visit Rockhouse, but now, due to capped capacities, a reservation must be requested to ensure there's enough space.

"Skylark Negril is for those who want to start their vacation on the beach and end on the cliffs," Cargill said. "We don’t book all of our rooms at full capacity because we want our guests to be able to come back and forth."

There's another reason, too.

"In the event someone tests positive for COVID-19 (which has not happened at the property), we have to have isolation or quarantine rooms, and we don’t want to shove people in a corner room," Cargill said. "We have beautiful rooms available. People feel very comfortable coming here because we've invested a lot of time training our staff."

The intensity of health and safety goes right down to the couch cushions—those are steamed every single time somebody gets up!

The property also hands out disposable masks to guests, in case someone forgets theirs in the room. Masks are required in public spaces, but not on the beach.

Cargill also noted that the property is very much a contactless resort: doors are all open, eliminating the touchpoints for guests, and the check in process is fully electronic.

The Jamaica Inn

One of Jamaica's most famous, nostalgic properties (Marilyn Monroe honeymooned here!), Jamaica Inn has been practicing social distancing since 1952 when it opened, joked the hotel's general manager, Kyle Mais.

A family-owned and operated property, Mais said that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, not much has changed at the property, and in fact, it's actually enabled staff to offer an even more intimate experience for its guests, as they've come up with a few ideas.

"By adopting these new protocols, we can actually improve the overall experience," Mais said. "We now offer socially-distanced, candlelit gourmet dining on your own terrace, where our staff will actually come and set the meal up for you."

All of the restaurants have outdoor terraces and were always a la carte menus, so besides from spacing the tables out a little bit more, things have remained the same.

Masks are worn by all staff, and guests must wear them in public, shared spaces.

The property also has always offered private car transfers to and from the airport, which guarantees a safer experience for all guests.

"We open this Friday (July 31st), so it’s an extremely exciting week for us," Mais said. "We already have a lot of overseas bookings, but most are locals or expats living here. We're projecting 30% capacity, which is not sustainable, especially at our level of service and what we offer. But, we’re projecting between 50 and 60 per cent by December. Apart from no longer seeing a brilliant smile behind the mask, I think the experienced has been heightened."

Sandals Resorts

Sandals Resorts has completed a thorough research assessment of all points of guest contact, resulting in the integration of advanced hygiene practices across eighteen key touch points – starting from the moment guests arrive at airport lounges through the entirety of the resort experience.

That practice extends to destination weddings, which, despite a smaller group, are still very much happening, shared Marsha Ann Donaldson-Brown, director of romance, Sandals Resorts.

"Love is genuinely not cancelled, and the majority of our bookings are coming from North America which has always been a standard," Donaldson-Brown said. "Without question, they're [couples] still coming. We have a solid number of bookings for the month of August, because weddings are future based; people are booking 18 months out."

Currently, there are only four Sandals properties open: Sandals Montego Bay, Sandals Royal Caribbean, Sandals Negril, and Beaches Negril.

Several changes have taken place, regarding resort weddings.

For starters, Sandals is promoting the service of having a virtual wedding planning session, where couples can meet with their wedding planner digitally.

"It’s a big selling point because it reduces the amount of engagement with a couple on a resort, because they would have gone through pre-selecting 99 per cent of everything in advance," Donaldson-Brown said.

The ceremony and reception also must adhere to the six-foot guidelines, which includes spacing between chairs, but also the number of guests permitted.

"We've reduced the capacity of wedding locations by 50 per cent," Donaldson-Brown said." 

The maximum capacity, right now, Donaldson-Brown said, is 50 guests.

The overwater wedding chapel has also reduced its seating capacity by 50 per cent. Buffet menus, which were always a popular choice for a Sandals wedding, have been modified. Instead, weddings have moved to a Sandals-staff served buffet or pre-plated meals.

Despite the changes, Donaldson-Brown said the majority of couples are not cancelling their weddings, and they have every intention of having them with Sandals.

"Gone are the days of 100-person weddings right now," Donaldson-Brown said. "Now, its your top 10, or top 15. We're seeing more elaborate, and more intimate weddings with a smaller party size. We should never dilute the notion of someone getting married."

VIP Attractions

"Whether you want to kick back with a cold Red Stripe, or eat a delicious Jamaican pattie, we make you feel like a VIP from the minute you arrive!" said Nicholas Watson, head of international smiles, VIP Attractions, the company behind Club Mobay Lounge, located in Sangster International Airport.

Located in "the gateway to paradise", as Watson calls it, Mobay Lounge offers a luxurious and refreshing space for travellers to unwind, whether its upon arrival or departure.

"It’s a difficult time for all visitors, and the industry in general, but people have the desire to travel. They are ready, and so are we," Watson said. "We know how important it is for people to be treated like VIPs, from start to finish."

Plus, now more than ever, travellers desire a more private space, away from other travellers—which has resulted in a spike in sales, Watson shared.

"Prior to COVID-19, we captured about 10 per cent of the airport traffic," Watson shared. "Since we reopened, we have 20 per cent of the airport traffic, but once we reach that limit, we can't pass it, and that's because we want to preserve that intimate experience for our guests."

Admission to the arrivals lounge costs $50USD for adults, and $25 USD for children 2-12. Those aged two and under receive complimentary entry. In the departures lounge, the fee is slightly reduced: $30 USD for adults, $20 USD for children, and again, complimentary for those aged two and under.

Once inside, guests can enjoy tasty treats, free WiFi, and premium liquor, all in a relaxing and comfortable space.

"And, if you enjoy yourself a little too much, we'll make sure you get to that gate!" Watson laughed, as the lounge also makes flight announcements to keep guests updated.

Travel agents can book the lounge for their clients directly. The lounge also sells a VIP annual card, which is commissionable to travel agent partners.

Travellers who hold a Priority Pass may also enjoy the lounge, free of charge.

Sangster International Airport

Sangster International Airport is the primary gateway to Jamaica, serving 70 per cent of tourist arrivals on the island, shared  Sharon Hislop-Holt, manager, commercial business development  and marketing, MBJ Airports.

"Tourism generates 30 per cent of Jamaica's GDP, and we needed the sector open for employment and economic opportunity," Hislop-Holt said. "We understand the inherent health risk for reopening, so right now, we are ensuring the safety of our staff, passengers, and wider community."

The airport has enacted several advanced health and safety protocols for all staff, and for those entering and exiting the premises. 

Upon arrival, all travellers are subjected to thermal scanning, and as of June 15th, when the airport reopened, all travellers must fill out a travel authorization form.

"We've worked with the government to facilitate health screening and testing of all passengers, and we reconfigured the whole arrivals hall to include and make sure these checks were being conducted," Hislop-Holt said.

According to Hislop-Holt, the entire wait time at Sangster International Airport is approximately one hour, and that includes the passenger screening process. 

Compared to this same time last year, flights into and out of the airport are only operating at 25 per cent, but the entire east terminal, which has 18 gateways, is always open.

Restaurants and bars are also open in the airport, with physical distancing measures and safety precautions in place.

45,000 passengers came through the airport in the month of July, Hislop-Holt shared, "but we expect to grow that over time."

This October, British Airways will begin flying into Sangster International Airport. WestJet also just filed a slot request, and they will begin service into Jamaica once more as of August.

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