Ian Dear, chairman and CEO Express Catering Ltd, speaking at the Mayberry Investments’ forum in this screen grab, on March 31, 2021

Jamaica Observer: KINGSTON, JA – One of Jamaica’s major tourism players has expressed confidence that the industry is on the cusp of a turnaround from the heavy blow inflicted by the novel coronavirus pandemic, and has pointed to cooperation between the public and private sectors as one of the contributing factors.

“I think we did an exceptional job in Jamaica as private and public sectors in cooperating and dealing with the issues as they arose so we could plan ahead to ensure that we had everything in place to mitigate and manage, and that came with the establishment of the resilient corridor that established the protocols that made people feel good about coming to Jamaica and having a great experience,” Ian Dear, chairman and CEO Express Catering Ltd, argued during Mayberry Investments’ virtual forum staged on March 31.

He said the availability of COVID-19 vaccines has also contributed to a return of confidence to travel which will benefit Jamaica and the wider Caribbean in the months ahead.

“The vaccines have really created some serious momentum in the marketplace. We’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing. A third of Americans now are vaccinated, either fully or partially. Some recent surveys show that 42 per cent of Americans are talking about travelling by July. That’s a huge number. So if that trend continues we should see a strong summer and we should start seeing a turnaround in the marketplace from thereon, right through to 2022,” Dear said.

“The exciting thing is that we’ve seen where our main markets are starting to travel again. Vaccines are truly (the) confidence game-changer. We’ve already seen where the United States is having large air travel movements — that’s very encouraging. Canada and the UK are changing their travel rules for the better, so… we’re seeing a very positive direction which will (work) to our benefit as a destination. So, for example, Air Canada is coming back to Jamaica in May, that’s a very good and positive sign,” said Dear.

“We are the sweet spot to travel. We have access to the United States and Canada, two of our biggest markets, and so within that four-hour window we are in the sweet spot,” he added.

“So Jamaica, for sure, and the Caribbean as a whole will see some very positive improvements with visitors coming back to our shores in a matter of months,” he posited.

According to Dear, inoculation programmes in Jamaica’s main tourism markets have had a very positive impact on how people are viewing engaging and enjoying themselves.

He said there is a huge pent-up demand for social activity, and people are eager to go out and enjoy themselves again and get back to normality or as close to that as possible.

Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, who was also a panellist, noted that vaccination protocols will dominate the way forward for seamless travel.

“More and more countries are moving to create the level of vaccination cover. The tragedy, of course, of all of that, is the difficulty of getting vaccinations. Already more than 80 per cent of all vaccines available globally is cornered by 10 countries. The last report I had [stated that] of 134 countries that are highly tourism-dependent less than 80 had even one dose of vaccine so far. So that’s an issue,” Bartlett said.

He projected that countries that have had high levels of vaccination will “take a position in regards to other countries that are less vaccinated, and that’s a real issue for us that we have to consider. So the ambition to get vaccinated has to be strong”.

However, Bartlett said that Jamaica has been moving in the right direction and he was far more optimistic today than he was a few months ago.

“We’re seeing that vaccines are arriving. We’re expecting two more shipments within the next two months and we’re expecting to see more and more of our people vaccinated, particularly those who are involved in front line activities, and tourism is one of the front line activities,” Bartlett said.

Mark Hart, executive chairman of Caribbean Producers Jamaica Ltd (CPJ), who was also a panellist, supported the predictions of a rebound and pointed to the experience of his company.

He said when the last hotel closed in the middle of March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, CPJ had 65 containers filled with products on their way to Jamaica.

Those products, he pointed out, would have been able to meet demand from visitors expected in March and April and into the summer.

“So we needed to do something fast. We had a lot of buckets in our warehouse and we started to carve up our products, repackage them and really created some great value for people to buy food that would normally go to the hospitality sector. We were doing up to 1,000 people a day taking away buckets of food, at cost, so we weren’t really making any profit but at least we were covering the value of the inventory,” he explained.

“We’re at a point now where we see this recovery going forward,” he said. “What COVID did was give us the time to do the things that we really should have been doing, but we were so busy focusing on fulfilment. So we have implemented countless amounts of IT, we have right-sized our human resources, we have invested in some infrastructure and we’re now really at our best state to re-enter full production.”

The efforts of both companies were praised by Adam Stewart, executive chairman of Sandals Resorts International, another panellist.

“These guys have pivoted and done an unbelievable job in a situation that none of us caused. This wasn’t any kind of fiscal mismanagement or reckless management. This was something that was imposed on us,” he said.