Jamaica remains a top 10 aspirational place in the world to visit for Americans who, often escaping the icy chill of the north, can't get enough of the island's warm hospitality, alluring blue sea waters, and sun-baked beaches.
"That tells you that Sandals' big bet on Jamaica is a good one. And that [Sandals] Dunn's River will fast become a must for American travellers who are desperate to get away from the machine-driven overscheduled sometimes soulless lives too many of us are living," said the man who heads the 18,000-strong American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA).
Zane Kirby, whose organisation is one of the largest of its kind in the world, was bringing greetings at the ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the symbolic opening of Sandals Resorts International's (SRI) latest resort just outside Ocho Rios, St Ann, last Friday.
"Sandals Dunn's River is an extraordinary addition to the Sandals brand," Kirby said, as he paid tribute to late SRI founder Gordon "Butch" Stewart for "putting this day in motion by repurchasing Sandals Dunn's River".
Sandals had managed the property many years earlier, before eventually purchasing it, Stewart's last acquisition before his passing in 2021.
Addressing new Executive Chairman Adam Stewart, Kirby said: "You brought your father's dream to life. I too wish he were here to see it in person but I know he's looking in on us and you and is immensely proud."
He said he and his wife had come in a few days earlier and witnessed some of the army of men and women among the 1,500 people who were worked at a torrid pace getting Sandals Dunn's River ready for Wednesday's opening.
"Now, it's impossible to fake the enthusiasm in the faces and smiles of the staff here. Everywhere I've been over the past few days, I've talked with staff. I can tell it's an enormously proud moment for all of Jamaica that Sandals Dunn's River is back under Jamaican ownership and with the Caribbean's best known and premier hospitality brand, Sandals."
He suggested that it would not be an exaggeration to say his travel agents know Sandals as the most trusted Caribbean hospitality company, having been often voted best in class in both management and product.
The United States represents just four per cent of the world's population, but 25 per cent of world GDP (gross domestic product) and consumption, figures that have remained mostly unchanged over the past 40 years, Kirby noted.
"Now, understanding consumer preference and behaviour is extremely important. So at ASTA we poll consumers and have for many years, as we want to make sure that our travel advisor members are aware of any changes in travel taste or preference. So it's good to know that for many years, and especially during and after the pandemic, Jamaica remains a top 10 aspirational place in the world to visit for Americans," he said.
Also bringing greetings, head of Air Canada Vacations Nino Montagnese hailed the solid partnership enjoyed by Sandals and his organisation, noting that Air Canada had been flying to Jamaica for over 74 years.
"Air Canada Vacations and Sandals Resorts enjoy a robust working relationship built on common strengths and common clientèle. Our customers are Canadians who want a high-quality product with exceptional service. And they know that that's exactly what they're going to get when they book Sandals or Beaches vacations with Air Canada vacations, because after all, they're placing their trust in not one but two amazing brands."
Montagnese expressed pride that Air Canada vacations is the only Canadian tour operator with direct flights to every Sandals or Beaches destination resort, adding: "Adam, you keep building Sandals and Beaches and we will continue to put flights in every one of those destinations."
He congratulated Sandals on its "brand new masterpiece, which I'm sure will be the cornerstone of Jamaica's already booming tourism product. Sandals Dunn's River is a spectacular resort that showcases the best of Sandals and the best of Jamaica and it's all in one place. It does not get better than this".
For his part, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett said the opening of the 260-room hotel is well time, against the background of "the strongest possible summer tourism season".
He said the best year for Jamaican tourism was 2019 when we had 1.2 million seats and a load factor of 87.5 per cent, "which meant 1,006,000 visitors came to Jamaica in the summer of 2019. This year would see 1.4 million seats and a load factor of 1.23 million visitors for the summer, "the best summer projected in the history of our tourism industry".
Opposition Leader Mark Golding said he was happy to witness "the tremendous output that has come from the continuation of the vision of the late great Gordon "Butch" Stewart. He commended Adam Stewart for "his commitment to ensuring that the wishes and legacy of his father are maintained and for putting all of his energy and commitment behind that".
"What we are witnessing here today is a testament to what he has achieved in that regard. I know the road has not been easy, but he has indefatigable energy and vision. And Jamaica and the Caribbean will continue to benefit from that in the years to come, God willing.
"And for my part, I commit myself and a future Government of Jamaica to fully support the function and expansion and vision of the Sandals Group throughout the Caribbean and in Jamaica. Their commitment to Jamaica cannot be questioned."
After singling out the many people who had worked to bring the Sandals Dunn's River project to life, Stewart reiterated that Sandals Resorts International, sitting on 11 islands across the Caribbean, was "a team of 18,500 Caricom nationals from top to bottom...We are Caribbean to the bone."
He spoke of his father's vision 42 years ago to establish Sandals by gambling on himself, and credited him for having the vision to purchase Sandals Dunn's River, the last project they had worked on together before his passing.