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Sandals on major Jamaica sales blitz

Monday, May 31, 2010    

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LAST week's civil unrest in which the security forces repelled a brazen attack on the State by criminal gunmen loyal to Tivoli Gardens 'don' Christopher 'Dudus' Coke has resulted in Jamaica experiencing an estimated 20 per cent drop in tourism sales, hotel mogul Gordon 'Butch' Stewart has said.

But Stewart, chairman of Sandals Resorts International, operators of the Sandals and Beaches chain of all-inclusive hotels, has marshalled his team of sales executives and mandated them to hit the streets of major overseas cities this week in order to reclaim lost visitor traffic to Jamaica.

"Starting tomorrow, Sandals' sales and marketing team will be hitting the road in Canada, the USA, United Kingdom and continental Europe," Stewart, who is also chairman of this newspaper, said in an interview yesterday.

"It is now a matter of doing everything to push Jamaica," he said.

The tourism fallout follows three days of intense gunbattles between the security forces and gunmen who were intent on preventing Coke's arrest for processing in relation to an extradition request filed by the United States Government.

The clashes occurred in West Kingston, a section of the capital city that is situated more than 100 miles east of the tourist resort city of Montego Bay and just over 50 miles away from Ocho Rios.

But international media coverage of the disturbance, coupled with travel advisories issued by the US, Canadian and UK governments urging caution on visiting Kingston, triggered concern in the travel trade.

Yesterday, Stewart said that while there was a drop in sales, the tourism sector was not seeing "an enormous amount of cancellations".

Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association chairman Wayne Cummings agreed, and attributed that to quick response by the tourism sector to get the word out in the market that the violence was restricted to a section of Kingston.

"There are still people who are anxious but they are less anxious than at the beginning," Cummings said ahead of yesterday's second day of talks between the sector and the Government aimed at devising a strategy to counter the negative publicity.

"The good thing that Jamaica has is that we have a strong base and the travel trade knows us well," said Cummings. "So once we got the information out that Montego Bay and the North Coast were not necessarily impacted, they reassured their passengers to continue to travel."

On Saturday, Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett said that the talks were expected to fashion "a series of strategies to keep the destination in the market and to ensure that the product is minimally affected".

He said that so far, the magnitude of the damage was not yet ascertained, but confirmed that the sector was jolted by a number of cancellations.

"We can't say properly yet how severe the damage is. What we can safely say, however, is there has been some level of cancellations, particularly with groups, but we can't quantify the extent of the damage at this time," Bartlett said.

Both Bartlett and Cummings said that while the cancellations were cause for concern, their greater worry was forward bookings.

"It is the decision to book which is where I think we are taking the greatest beating," said Cummings, who also told the Observer that the sector is preparing to launch a timely public relations campaign.

"We need to determine how much it is going to cost and when is the right time to do it because we can't compete with the negative press," he said.

But Stewart, it emerged, decided to trade blows with the negative images reported in the press by keeping Sandals advertisements on television in Jamaica's major tourism markets.

"There was an argument about getting off TV, but we decided to show the good side while the other side was taking a beating," he said. "Hopefully, as things start settling down we'll get the message out and start getting more visitors into Jamaica."

He said that while the operations of the security forces affected the tourism industry he didn't mind, so long as they deal effectively with the country's crime problem.

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