Jamaica's tourism industry is experiencing a boom, with nearly 1.18 million arrivals between January and March this year, an increase of 94% compared to the same period in 2022. However, this sudden surge in tourism has caused long queues and hours-long waits for arriving passengers at the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, which is the island's main airport. Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett attributes the problem to a shortage of airport staff to process the unexpected volume of people flying into the airport since the end of the pandemic.
Bartlett told Parliament that the recovery has been stronger than anticipated and that Jamaica is not the only country struggling with the lack of airport workers. The authorities plan to spend more on technology to eliminate paperwork at the airport, including ending the requirement for visitors to fill out a form upon arrival. The Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, emphasizes the need to push through a $70 million modernization and expansion project at Sangster International Airport to improve its infrastructure and make Jamaica more competitive with other countries in the region.
As part of the project, the runway is being lengthened at a cost of $34 million, work that is expected to be completed in June. Bartlett said that the airport's growth plan aims to draw 5 million visitors annually by 2025, a 35% increase from Jamaica's peak of 3.7 million tourists in 2022. The airport must be able to accommodate larger aircraft that would be used on long-haul flights, and Asian and Middle Eastern countries are among the new markets being targeted.
Sangster International Airport 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 said it spent $287 million to improve the airport in the first 18 years of the deal, including expanding the immigration hall and departure lounge, and recently installing 60 self-service kiosks to reduce passenger processing and waiting times.
Jamaica's tourism industry is a significant contributor to the country's economy, and the surge in tourism is good news for the industry. However, it also highlights the need for better infrastructure and more investment in technology to improve passenger processing and waiting times at the airport. With the modernization and expansion project underway, Sangster International Airport is set to become a more attractive gateway for tourists to Jamaica and the Caribbean, accommodating larger aircraft and handling increasing numbers of visitors.