For decades, there's been a clear division among Americans seeking tropical beaches: If you lived on the East Coast, you looked toward the Caribbean. If you lived on the West Coast, you looked toward Hawaii or Mexico.
It was only logical: Getting to Hawaii or Mexico from here generally took five hours--or much less--often on a nonstop flight, a more convenient journey than a flight to the Caribbean that would take at least six hours and generally required a stop on the way.
"The concept is that the Caribbean is miles and miles away and that it takes two days just to get there," acknowledges Donnie Dawson, head of the Jamaican Tourist Board's Los Angeles office.
"Nobody wants to schlep twice," agrees an Air Jamaica representative.
Now, however, it may be time to recalculate your comparisons.
At least one regularly scheduled carrier and one major charter operator are planning to begin nonstop service between LAX and Caribbean airports this spring. Thus, instead of pausing for stops or changing planes in Miami or Atlanta or San Juan, a traveler flying to the Caribbean typically will take just a few minutes more than the five-hour flight to Hawaii. (Travelers to foreign destinations, however, will have to deal with airport customs checks.)
Promoters of Caribbean destinations are hailing these developments as the beginning of a new era in the wooing of Californians, only 55,000 of whom visited Jamaica last year. Southern California travel agents have turned up by the hundreds at recent seminars to hear about the sparkling beaches and intriguing culture of Jamaica and other Caribbean spots. In short, if you're one who listens closely to talk about beach vacations, get ready to hear a lot more about such destinations as Jamaica, Aruba, Barbados, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic.
The charters will be arranged by Sunquest Holidays, an ambitious and well-financed new package-tour firm based in Simi Valley, whose owners include the Airtours Group, a British travel conglomerate.
Beginning May 22, Sunquest will be offering a battery of Caribbean packages from LAX to Aruba, Barbados, Puerto Plata (the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Nassau (the Bahamas). All trips will feature Sunquest's Sun Country Airlines, often including a nonstop outgoing flight and a direct flight, with a stop for refueling and customs processing in Dallas on the return trip. Packages typically include round-trip air fare and lodging, although some "all-inclusive" packages also include meals.
Depending on the Caribbean destination, the Sunquest/Sun Country nonstop flying times will vary from five to eight hours. Package prices vary widely--from $359 for a three-night stay in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, to $1,784 for a 14-night all-inclusive package to Aruba. (Sunquest sells its trips primarily through travel agents.)
Since Sunquest also is introducing air-and-lodging packages to Mexico and Hawaii in coming months, it seems to have hedged its bets about Californians' willingness to go Caribbean. Air Jamaica, provider of soon-to-begin weekly nonstop flights to Jamaica, is making a more direct wager on changing Californians' habits.
Air Jamaica (tel.  523-5585) will start its new service March 23, offering one departure from LAX every Sunday at an introductory coach fare of $399 round trip. The carrier, which discontinued a previous effort at California-Caribbean nonstop service in 1990, also is offering package vacations through its Air Jamaica Vacations department. Air-lodging packages range from $689 per person, double occupancy, for seven nights in Montego Bay to $1,909 for a seven-night all-inclusive stay at the Sandals Dunn's River resort in the Ocho Rios area.
Air Jamaica, formerly a government-run entity, was privatized two years ago and is led by chairman Gordon "Butch" Stewart, the operator of 11 Sandals resort hotels in the Caribbean. Under Stewart's control, the carrier has acquired new Airbus aircraft and won U.S. government approval for a substantial expansion of service to U.S. cities. Approval for the LAX nonstop flight came in January.
That approval comes despite the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's classification of Jamaica's Civil Aviation Authority as "category two," rating the airport's facilities one notch below the U.S.'s major airports. Air Jamaica representatives stress that the carrier and its equipment have met all relevant U.S. standards for safety and operations.