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Appleton anxiously awaits rail service for US$7.2-M tourist attraction

Editor at Large, South Central Bureau

Monday, January 22, 2018

APPLETON, St Elizabeth – There was just one discordant note at Thursday's triumphant formal unveiling of the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience at the Appleton Estate in northern St Elizabeth.

The problem is that the Jamaica Government's long-promised rail service from Montego Bay to Appleton, which is to transport tourists to what is being described as an “unparalleled” rum experience, remains just a plan.

As projected by planners from the Government, Appleton and its parent company, Italian liquor giant Campari Group, the rail will help boost the number of visitors to Appleton from 50,000 — when the tour attaction was closed more than a year ago to allow massive reconstruction — to 200,000 annually.

On Thursday, J Wray & Nephew Chairman Clement “Jimmy” Lawrence made it abundantly clear that return of the rail service which collapsed decades ago was essential to the success of Campari's US$7.2-million investment in the Appleton Estate rum experience.

“Though we had anticipated the resuscitation of the railway service, unfortunately it has not materialised,” Lawrence told scores of visitors and Appleton employees.

“Let me underscore the importance of the rail service, particularly the Montego Bay to Appleton leg. The rum experience, which can accommodate 200,000 visitors annually, will not maximise its capacity in the absence of this mode of transportation. I know and appreciate the Government is making its best efforts for this to happen, but its importance cannot be overemphasised,” he added.

Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, who has described Campari's investment at Appleton as a huge boost for Jamaica's US$3-billion visitor industry, had reassuring words. The Government was working on a partnership with entrepreneurs to get the project going, the minister said.

“Jimmy, the rail service is going to be a reality,” said a bubbly Bartlett to enthusiastic cheers.

Bartlett said he had met with “a team of entrepreneurs who are putting the dollars together” and had been told that “$40 million is on the table now to start the first leg of the programme, which will take us to Catadupa (southern St James close to the border with northern St Elizabeth) and the second leg to Appleton thereafter”.

The tourism minister said Prime Minister Andrew Holness was “a great supporter, and he wanted me to say to you that he personally is committed to ensuring that the transportation arrangements to enable what I call a seamless flow of visitors into your destination is in place”. Bartlett said an allied road improvement programme “is on the cards for this fiscal year to come” with the Tourism Enhancement Fund involved in the project.

Currently the poor state of roads linking Montego Bay to the south coast, including St Elizabeth, is a source of considerable public dissatisfaction.

Bartlett told journalists after the function that he expected the rail link from Montego Bay to Appleton to be done in two years.

“I am hoping that we will have that arrangement from Montego Bay to Appleton by 2020,” Bartlett said. He expected the first leg of the project from Montego Bay to Catadupa to be done at the end of this year (2018) to early next year, he said.

He declined to give cost projections or name private sector partners, indicating that Transport Minister Mike Henry was better placed to do so.

As visualised by Bartlett, the tourist-oriented rail service — with stops at stations in southern St James and northern St Elizabeth — as well as improved roads will revitalise communities which were thriving before the old passenger rail service died in the 1990s.

“This will build a new corridor for development,” Bartlett told journalists. “In the old days the towns of Cataduppa, Ipswich, Merrywood, Mulgrave were all bustling little commercial centres. That possibility looms again,” he said.

During the formal ceremony, Bartlett told his audience that Campari's investment at Appleton represented “exactly the kind of attraction Jamaica needs as it continues to diversify the tourism product to boost visitor arrivals and tourism earnings”.

Named in honour of Joy Spence, Appleton's master blender who has been at the company since 1981 and is said to be the “first female master blender in the entire spirit world”, the Appleton Rum Experience (formerly the Appleton Estate Rum Tour) is aimed at exposing visitors to Jamaican history, culture and cuisine, while promoting Appleton Rum to the world.

It's projected that 100,000 visitors will come to Appleton this year, gradually building to 200,000 annually with the coming into being of the rail service and improved roads. The 11,000-acre Appleton Estate is said to have been producing rum since 1749.

Noting that gastronomy tourism was now worth US$150 billion globally and growing fast, Bartlett said he was “especially excited” by a new state-of-the-art restaurant, “because Jamaica is expanding into gastronomy tourism in a big way” as part of an overall diversification of its visitor industry.

The upgrade at Appleton amounts to 26,000 square feet of buildings. It includes a welcome centre, luxurious bars and lounges, expanded tour elements detailing historic rum manufacturing from “cane to cup”, tasting rooms to facilitate visitors in the “experience” of Appleton products, kitchens, restaurant (complete with authentic jerk pit), and retail store.

Campari Group CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz, who described Appleton as “the finest rum in the world”, spoke of his company's “love affair” with the Appleton Estate. “It took us 13 years and three attempts to buy the brand,” he declared.

He expressed optimism that his company's “major investment” at the Appleton Estate will help to further the “excellence” of the Jamaica brand and Jamaican “craftsmanship”.

Italian Ambassador to Jamaica Armando Varricchio said the partnership of Campari and Italy would further the strong links between Jamaica and Italy.

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