An extraordinary day for Jamaica — US$230-m Sandals Dunn’s River

It’s a new story but it’s an old story, with a US$230-million twist that will give Sandals its latest ultra-modern resort — Sandals Dunn’s River. This put thousands to work and likely signals the recovery of Jamaica’s pandemic-battered tourism industry.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Sandals Resorts International (SRI) Executive Chairman Adam Stewart broke ground for the start of phase one of the Sandals Dunn’s River development, across the road from the alluring attraction that brought the world to Jamaica’s shores at the birth of local tourism.

And while the new Sandals Dunn’s River will usher in a new post-pandemic tourism period in Sandals and Jamaica’s history, it is also a resort that rises from the past, from a time when a still fledgling company built by the late Gordon “Butch” Stewart hired out its powerful brand to manage the then Life of Jamaica-owned resort.

“This is an extraordinary day for Sandals and for Jamaica. The significance of standing here today to commemorate the very first resort building project in Jamaica and the actualisation of our first investment to move the company and country forward after a pandemic is simply awe-inspiring,” said the executive chairman.

“We are also filled with pride and gratitude for this poignant and tremendously significant moment for our family. A moment that so fittingly takes place in Jamaica, our home, and here in Ocho Rios where my dad grew up on the beach nearby, a place that always remained close to his heart.

“As we embark on our strategic growth plans here in Jamaica and across the Caribbean, this place that inspired him, that gave life to him and to me and to this company, is part of everything we do,” Stewart said as he paid tribute to his visionary father who bought the property last year but did not live to see his plans come to fruition.

The founder and chairman of Sandals Resorts International died on January 4, 2021 and was buried at the nearby Rio Chico. But Sandals Dunn’s River seemed fated to be in the hands of the Stewart family. The hotel came under Sandals management in 1991 and drew thousands of visitors to Ocho Rios to enjoy the extra all-inclusive experience and frolic under the scenic waterfalls that the world can’t get enough of.

After Sandals withdrew from that project, it was operated by Sagicor, the latest iteration of Life of Jamaica, under the Jewels brand, until SRI, whose philosophy is ‘never waste a good crisis’, bought two of the Jewels St Ann properties last year, even as the novel coronavirus pandemic raged.

The few people who attended the ground-breaking ceremony because of COVID-19 restrictions included Louis Grant, the legendary general manager, now retired but healthy enough to hear the heartfelt tributes to him and Stewart, from grateful staff who served there in the old days, via video presentation.

Government ministers Audley Shaw and Karl Samuda; and Marsha Smith, the Member of Parliament for the area, accompanied by Delano Seiveright representing Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, attended the event under a tent baked by the late morning sun a few steps from the beach that will typically be teeming with guests when the hotel is ready in 2024.

Prime Minister Holness said the new development would cost US$230 million and create 2,100 jobs for local workers and contractors and likely lead the boom and recovery he projected would come in the wake of the pandemic, “based on the huge pent-up demand for travel in the United States”.

He pledged his Government’s support for all those who invested in the industry, praising the Stewarts for their confidence in Jamaica and remembering the elder Stewart of whom he said, “I am missing the man.”

Said Adam Stewart: “I intend to carry on my father’s legacy of uncompromised innovation. And we begin here today, where it all started and where it will go on, at home.

“After the year we have all had, we got here today because we never gave up. At Sandals we never stopped reinvesting and we never left the marketplace. When others pulled back, we kept our teams in place and on the job… and when the time was right, we were the first to reopen our doors and work alongside major airline carriers to be ready for when customers could come back.”

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