For nearly 20 years, the venerable Bob Marley has been remembered and celebrated at Jamaica’s wildly popular Reggae Sunsplash music festival held in the steamy month of August. Starting next year, the party will continue in grand fashion, but the festival’s surprise move to Ocho Rios and, more importantly, to the winter high season will require fact planning and more vacation dollars if U.S. consumers want to attend.
Fans may be excited that the new dates of February 5-8 will include Marley’s birthday, February 6. And the concerts will be complemented by a new “Bob Marley Week” of activities highlighting the legend’s life and music. But the tradition of a low season and less expensive romp has ended now that festival organizers have agreed with tourism officials that Sunsplash must compete with, an international music scene.
“All you have to do is to go on the Internet and you can find a number of festivals throughout North America and Europe that obviously cannot be held in the middle of your winter,” says Rae Barrett, chairman of Reggae Sunsplash International. “This gives us a chance to stand out.” He hopes that the February dates will also appeal to African Americans looking for new ways to celebrate Black History Month.
Still, Barrett, a former chairman of the Jamaica Tourist Board, admits that the move to the highly visited winter reverses the festival’s original purpose to fill out a soft summer calendar. When Sunsplash debuted in 1978, the country was still building its share of the tourism market. Many hotels had to close for the season and restaurants struggled to fill empty tables. Today, Jamaica is such a popular Caribbean destination for both Americans and Europeans — many who take extended summer vacations — that organizers feel the faithful will not miss the reggae of groups like Third World and dance hall stars Super Cat and Bounti Killa.
The biggest bite will be to the consumer’s pocket. Prime Caribbean properties, cruise cabins and airline rates generally drop after April 15, by as much as 40%-50%, according to Richard Kahn, spokesman for the Caribbean Tourist Organization. The savings are made even more attractive through November because crowds thin out and the weather is continually temperate. By contrast, the Caribbean’s peak season, from mid-December through March, means that airfares increase nearly 10% while hotel rates leap to their highest of the year.
“This move will require much more advance preparation by consumers,” Kahn says. “The more popular properties may be booked two months ahead of time, so a lot of last-minute planners will be left out.” Kahn says that it’s too soon to know how vacationers and fans will respond to the unusual schedule change. The impact could be great. Sunsplash is the only Caribbean music event that can measure its success by the number of tourists versus locals who attend, he says. More than 15,000 visitors are expected in 1998.
Travel and ticket packages through JRS Tours may be the best way to see any combination of the four days and