Top Us Beach

Hotel and villa owners in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, are counting their blessings as more Jamaicans venture to the area for short-term respite.

They are not without challenges, however.

Located in the south of the breadbasket parish, Treasure Beach has the lowest density of rooms in Jamaica, at 30 rooms per acre. Still, like other tourist centres across Jamaica, Treasure Beach has not been spared the impact of the pandemic and the measures that the Jamaican Government and others around the world have implemented to stymie the spread of the novel coronavirus over the last 18 months. Nevertheless, the decline in overseas guests presented an opportunity for property owners to market their services to locals.

“We've doubled in turnover,” David Folb, owner of Lashings Beach Club, told the

Jamaica Observer in an interview.

He explained that at the onset of the pandemic, when countries began closing their borders in April last year, he stopped taking reservations for Lashings' two locations — a hillside and a beachfront property — for a period of six weeks. However, he continued to oversee the hotel's restaurant and bar until the Government issued orders to limit gatherings.

A British expat, Folb converted what was once his private residence into the Lashings Beach Club almost a decade ago. Initially, he marketed the property to “wealthy” and “well-to-do” Britons who wanted to get away from the cold climes. Since then, he has added a penthouse suite, Tree-Top Bar, a pub and a bird conservancy to the property. At the time of the

Business Observer's visit, there were ongoing renovations.

“One thing that we were always very keen on, long before the pandemic [is that] we wanted more Jamaican people here. There's nothing that English people love more than going to a place that has locals — although there are a lot of cultural differences,” Folb shared.

But with the UK Government flip-flopping on its policy of non-essential travel within the last year, the hotelier has seen revenues from its main market dwindle.

“The British trade is non-existent. We virtually don't have any British trade. It's starting to come back,” he said, pointing to measures that the UK Government will undertake to simplify its “traffic light” list and facilitate travel to the island.

In the meantime, Lashings has seen Jamaicans replacing overseas tourists. Folb, who monitors reservations with his Jamaican wife as co-owner, attributes this uptake to Jamaicans resorting to Treasure Beach instead of their usual jaunts to North America and the UK for vacation.

The opinion is not unique to Folb. Across town, at beachside property 77 West, co-owner Annabelle Todd is witnessing the same trend.

“I would say local reservations have gone up 80 per cent,” she informed the

Observer, adding that the resort's market mix before the pandemic comprised 50 per cent Europeans, 40 per cent North Americans, and 10 per cent Jamaicans.

“At the moment European travellers are non-existent,” she continued.

Like Lashings, 77 West reduced its operations for six weeks then gradually reopened. Todd outlined that, whereas guests could not stay overnight or benefit from the property's restaurant and bar, she started offering guests J$1,000 day passes with which they could bring their own food and make use of the pool and beach.

When restrictions on travelling and gathering were lifted in July last year, 77 West began taking bookings for weekends and then weekdays. Todd observed that Jamaicans who would have prefered going to all-inclusive hotels before the pandemic began opting for villas and boutique hotels in Treasure Beach, given their more intimate nature that allowed for physical distancing.

“Jamaicans kept us alive,” she noted, explaining in addition that the pandemic has challenged business owners in the area to change the way they conduct business. “So, whereas before we relied on overseas tourists who paid a lot of money — our rates were different from what they are now — we had to make adjustments to our rates, offer specials and deals. The restaurants were opened to the public and so we were okay.”

Todd thought then that the worst was behind her, but she was mistaken. She shared that the last round of weekend/weekday lockdowns implemented by the Government in August and September were by far the “most challenging”. This, she said, was due to the fact that guests who had made reservations prior to lockdowns were not aware that the hotel could provide them with letters allowing them to travel.

She also observed that as the Delta variant emerged, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Preventions and the UK Government advised people against travelling to Jamaica — overseas tourists became frustrated by the process of paying for COVID-19 tests and having to observe quarantine protocols upon return.

Her villa business, on the other hand, continues to boom.

“We would be dead. And it's interesting that I think people who had never even considered Treasure Beach before found it. Jamaicans who would otherwise go to “all-inclusives” found Treasure Beach in the last 10 months,” she explained.

Todd also shared that while overseas guests booked their stay via 77 West's website and short-term rental platforms, Jamaicans reached out by social media, mainly Instagram, to make reservations.

At Jakes Hotel, owner Jason Henzell also confirmed an increase in Jamaican guests in the community and at his property in particular.

“A lot more Jamaicans have discovered Treasure Beach since COVID, and we've always had a consistent amount of local business at Jakes. So we were very fortunate to have a very strong Jamaican patronage and also from expatriates who live in Jamaica as well — so foreigners who live primarily in Kingston and work at the embassies and multinational companies like Digicel. So it helps that we had that and we have appreciated our Jamaican patronage even prior to the pandemic,” Henzell stated.

He, too, pointed out that travel advisories and restrictions from the CDC and UK Government have “hit Jamaica hard, as a travel destination”, as did the cancellation of flights. Henzell agrees with Todd that confusion about travelling through the country during a lockdown and navigating the JamCOVID website discouraged overseas travel.

Still, as south coast chapter chair of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association, Henzell said the organisation's lobby to allow people with reservations to travel on no-movement days helped. And with a history that spans almost 30 years, Jakes Hotel has won the loyalty of some of its guests.

“We have a very high percentage of repeat guests. So that makes us also feel very happy with our product as that is the number one indicator of whether you're doing a good job or not because, of course, the accommodation sector is competitive and there are a lot of places that people can stay around the world,” he underscored.

At a time when other hotels and villas in Treasure Beach struggled with securing bookings from overseas guests, Jakes held reservations until borders reopened.

“Our clients feel close to the staff, the Jakes family, and they were able to look at the borders being closed and instead of asking to be refunded, they said we can hold their deposit and we will rebook when things turn around. So that is the testament to their faith in the product and the love of the product,” the Jakes co-owner disclosed.

In Treasure Beach, it seems having a food service component does also contribute to properties keeping financially afloat. The roll-out of the E-commerce National Delivery Solution (ENDS) has also contributed to revenue growth in the community.

Henzell told the

Observer that when bookings are slow and challenging, locals and foreigners alike “tend to gravitate to our villas and towards Jack Sprat” restaurant. With ENDS, Jack Sprat has been able to deliver to smaller properties that don't offer food-preparation services.

Similarly, Lashings has been delivering over 100 meals per night, even during lockdowns, according to Folb. He said further that, at a minimum, the restaurant may deliver 200 meals per week, catering to older people and guests at properties which don't offer food-preparation services.

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