BY JULIAN RICHARDSON Asistant Business Co-ordinator email@example.com
BEIJING, China — A Chinese guide for Portia Simpson Miller pointed his finger with pride to where Usain Bolt scorched the track at the 2008 Olympics inside the world-famous 'Bird's Nest' National Stadium in Beijing.
"Bolt's Nest," he highlighted, jokingly to the Jamaican prime minister — who is wrapping up the Beijing leg of her official visit to China — a nickname given to the US$423-million landmark after the sprinter's exploits here, along with his fellow countrymen.
On Friday morning during an interview with Simpson Miller on the State-run CCTV, broadcast to hundreds of millions of people, the interviewer made several references to Bolt and Jamaican athletics with comfort.
Five years after the fact, the performance at Beijing 2008 is among the most popular topics brought up for discussion by the Chinese as Simpson Miller and her delegation go from point to point on a five-day visit aimed at deepening the already-strong ties between Jamaica and communist China.
"The impact of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is that the recognition of Jamaica, the flag and the symbols are very high in China. The point of identification with China is the Beijing Olympics," said Ralph Thomas, Jamaica's ambassador to the Asian giant.
"The Jamaican image is out there for a small country in a big market," he added.
However, questions remain as to whether or not Jamaica has adequately capitalised on the brand recognition, especially in the area of tourism, which was a major target market after Beijing.
The number of Chinese travellers internationally and the value of their expenditure have been growing rapidly in recent years. China is expected to become the world's fourth largest source of travellers by 2020, generating 100 million outbound tourists each year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.
But despite stopover arrivals in Jamaica having more than doubled among Chinese from 935 in 2008 to 2,102 last year, according to annual travel statistics published by the Jamaica Tourist Board, it is still less than one per cent of total stopovers on the island and the ambassador feels the country is missing out on the most populated market in the world.
"We have made progress (generally) since Beijing, but the area we have not made sufficient progress in is the area of tourism, which really stands to benefit the most," Thomas told the Jamaica Observer, as the delegation got ready to board a flight to Shanghai, where the Prime Minister will spend the last day of the official trip.
"Everybody knows destination Jamaica in China," Thomas said, but he reiterated that the two issues slowing the penetration of the Chinese travel market remained that of visa restrictions and lack of airlift.
Shanghai mayor Yang Xiong backed Thomas's assessment during a welcome lunch for Simpson Miller's party the following morning. He made particular reference to the "total flight time of over 20 hours" as particularly prohibitive.
"We must work together to ensure more visitors," Yang said.
"If you ask a Chinese about a destination in the Caribbean, it's (also communist) Cuba followed by Jamaica," he added to emphasise the country's popularity.
Thomas supports abolition of visas for the Chinese, for whom getting a Jamaican visa may be challenging, as depending on where persons are, they may have to fly for hours to the Jamaican embassy in Beijing to get one.
"My view of it is that visa abolition is something that could cause many visitors to come to Jamaica," said Thomas, emphasising that it must be done with control so visitors don't overstay.
"If that happens it could take away one of the obstacles that makes it inconvenient to travel to Jamaica," he said, noting that Jamaica has visa abolition policies with many other exotic markets, including Eastern European countries such as Russia.
With regard to the other obstacle of airlift, Thomas said that the Chinese need more direct flights to Jamaica, in shorter distances rather than having to fly for 20 hours all over the world and intermittently changing planes in other countries in order to get to the island.
To this end, Jamaica is making "strategic linkages" with industry interests and looking at airlift opportunities, Thomas said.
At the same time, the proliferation of Chinese investment in Jamaica, such as the logistics hub being explored by the Government in collaboration with China Harbour Engineering Company, will help to drive Chinese visitors to Jamaica, the ambassador reasoned.
"If we were to get the big Chinese investment in the logistics hub," coupled with the fact that "a lot of Chinese travel for business purposes, it's natural that there would be greater interest in tourism to go along with it," Thomas said.
Thomas praised the mission led by Simpson Miller as one that is hitting the right notes towards attracting investments and subsequently bringing more Chinese to Jamaican shores. The feeling here among some members of the delegation is that it has been one of the most successful state visits yet.
"The prime minister's personality is one that wins hearts and so they are totally charmed by her but at the same time she is having serious negotiations and discussions to advance some of these things," Thomas said in his assessment.
Bolt and company would be perfect ambassadors to advance the cause, Thomas added, not ruling out engaging the services of the athletes to more aggressively market the country as a destination to the Chinese.
"Certainly from where I sit in Beijing, I would be encouraging that we take advantage of their goodwill and something that's of great resource to the country in terms of helping to market this idea of Jamaica being a destination for Chinese tourists," Thomas said.