KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — The number of tourists flocking to Jamaica’s sun-drenched beaches soared nearly 100% in the first three months of the year, causing long queues and hours-long waits for arriving passengers at the island's main airport.
Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett told The Associated Press that the problem stemmed from a shortage of airport staff to process the unexpected volume of people flying into Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay since the end of the pandemic.
Bartlett told Parliament later that day that there were 1.18 million arrivals from January through March — 94% more than the same period of 2022 and a record high for Jamaica’s tourism high season.
“The recovery has been stronger than anticipated and everybody all over the world is having difficulty with their airports because … (many) of the workers have not come back,” Bartlett said.
He said authorities plan to spend more on technology as they strive to do away with paperwork at the airport, including ending a requirement for visitors to fill out a form upon arrival.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness said the problems at Sangster underscore the need to push through the $70 million modernization and expansion project that already was underway.
The work is scheduled to be completed by 2025, and Honess said the improvements at the Caribbean’s largest and busiest airport "will make Jamaica more attractive and make Jamaica more competitive with other countries in the region, which have also invested heavily in improving their infrastructure.”
As part of the project, the runway is being lengthened at a cost of $34 million, work that is expected to be finished in June.
“We are excited about the prospects of Sangster being able to accommodate these mega airlines that will be flying to Jamaica and the Caribbean,” Bartlett said during the AP interview last week.
He said the Tourism Ministry’s growth plan aims to have the island draw 5 million visitors annually by 2025. That would be a 35% increase from Jamaica's peak of 3.7 million tourists in 2022.
Bartlett said Asian and Middle Eastern countries are among new markets being targeted and the airport must be able to accommodate the larger aircraft that would be used on such long-haul flights.
In 2019, before the pandemic, the airport processed 4.7 million passengers, including citizens and visitors. The number of tourists to Jamaica peaked at 3.7 million in 2022, 70% of whom used the Sangster gateway.
Sangster is managed by MBJ Airports Ltd., a consortium 74.5% owned by a subsidiary of the Mexican airports operator Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico and the rest by Vantage Airport Group of Canada.
The consortium, which has a 30-year concession that began in 2003, said it spent $287 million to improve the airport in the first 18 years of the deal.
Among the improvements, the airport operator has expanded the immigration hall and departure lounge. The check-in area was recently outfitted with 60 self-service kiosks, with plans to install more, to reduce passenger processing and waiting times.