Despite two Category 5 hurricanes just weeks apart, the Caribbean is on track for a strong 2018, as the Caribbean broke a new record welcoming 30.1M visitors, representing a $37B USD expenditure up 2.6 per cent over 2016.
The statistic was revealed during the Caribbean Tourism Organization's (CTO) Caribbean Tourism Performance Report news conference yesterday (Feb. 15), streamed live from Barbados to deliver crucial updates on the state of recovery efforts in some of the most affected regions of the Caribbean.
Hugh Riley, secretary general of the CTO, was joined by Ryan Skeete, the CTO’s acting director of research, as well as Alex Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group, to field questions from international journalists.
“These outcomes resulted in an overall increase of 1.7 per cent in 2017, marking it the eighth consecutive year of growth, albeit slower than the average global growth rate of 6.7 per cent," said Skeete. "The performamce in 2017 was primarily supported by sustained economic growth in all major source markets. Stayover visits were on track for a strong performance during the first half of 2017, growing by 4.8 per cent, but a major slowdown occured due to the impact of the hurricanes, and the hurricane affected countries recorded decreases ranging from -18 per cent to -7 per cent."
Bouncing back for business
The United States continued to be the primary market, growing by about 0.5 per cent to reach an estimated 14.9 million visits to the region. As Skeete pointed out, main contributing factors to these numbers included solid economic growth, low unemployment and high consumer confidence. On the otherhand, the Canadian market rebounded strongly, recording a 4.3 per cent increase in arrivals, compared to a decline of 3.1 per cent in 2016. The European market represented the highest number of passenger arrivals, marking a 6.2 per cent increase, and taking the number up to 5.8 million visitors.
Although many ports were closed or destroyed in several popular cruising destinations, the cruise sector is also recovering at a record pace, and the CTO reports a new high of 27 million passengers, which is 2.4 per cent higher than 2016.
“The cruise passenger performance mirrors the performance of tourist arrivals, as it grew strongly 4.6 per cent in the first half of 2017, but contracted marginally by 0.4 per cent in the second half of the year," Skeete said. "Cruise passenger arrivals fell dramatically in September by some 20 per cent. However, growth resumed in October, which saw a two per cent increase."
An overview of the nations most affected this past hurricane season
While some countries escaped Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria with minor damage like felled trees and intense winds, other countries were devastated. Anguilla, Antigua, the British Virgin Islands, Cuba, Dominica, St. Maarten/Saint Martin, and the U.S. Virgin Islands were severely affected, with airports and cruise ports destroyed, structures demolished, and a major loss of both land and life.
It would be unfair, and unrealistic to expect these countries' recovery to be on par with less-impacted destinations, but nevertheless, the CTO reports that all of these destinations are working hard, with much to show for it.
"According to the CHTA, there are 129 CHTA members in these countries, and 49 per cent (63 hotels) of these properties are now open," Skeete said. "These properties include visitors in these numbers, not just emergency services workers. An additional 19 per cent (12 hotels) of these closed properties are expected to reopen by September 2018 and between September and December, we expect another 32 per cent (20 hotels) of these properties to reopen as well.”
The following updates were available for several countries:
- Opened luxury nine-suite Quintessence Boutique hotel on Jan. 1
- Five-star properties continue to reopen this month
- 20 attractions open for business
- Aqua Park to reopen in March
- 70 establishments, including popular Elvis' Beach Bar now open
- Electricity and water have been completely restored.
- Ferry services are back in operation from Anguilla’s Blowing Point Ferry Terminal to both St. Martin (French) and St. Maarten (Dutch).
- Several private ferry companies have resumed operations to and from St. Maarten, timed to coincide with flight arrival and departures at Princess Juliana Airport, with service operating from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m
For more Anguilla updates, visit https://irma.ivisitanguilla.com.
British Virgin Islands (BVI)
- All attractions - with the exception of four museums on Tortola - are open, including the famous Baths
- Electricity has been restored to 85 per cent; full plans for total power restoration by Easter 2018
- Beef Island Airport is fully operational with normal flights on LIAT, InterCaribbean, Cape Air, VI Airlinks and private charters
For more BVI updates, visit www.bvitourism.com.
- 19 of 23 major attractions now open.
- Accepting thousands of cruise passengers since Jan. 28
- 388 (40 per cent) of the 960 total rooms available since Jan. 1
- 60+ restaurants are open and operating
For more Dominica updates, visit www.DiscoverDominica.com.
- 120 PRTC-endorsed hotels open, along with hundreds of Airbnb listings and paradores, small family-run inns
- 3,800 more rooms coming by 2019, representing a 25 per cent increase
- 120+ tourist attractions open including Old San Juan walking tours, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristobal, Bacardi Tour, Cueva Ventana and Hacienda Campo Rico
- 1,000+ restaurants are open throughout the island, 1,885 of which are located in the San Juan area
- Electricity restored to 83.6 per cent of the island, and all of San Juan now has power
- All airports across the island are open and operational, day and night flights are underway
- Homeports accepting 14 vessels, up four from last year; cruise business is doing better than ever
For more Puerto Rico updates, visit www.seepuertorico.com.
- Power restored to 98 per cent of the destination
- All beaches and most activities and attractions have opened
- 40 per cent of traditional hotels/rooms in the territory are operational
For more USVI updates visit www.usviupdate.com.
"There is complete focus throughout the region on ensuring the safety and security of visitors, and of course the safety and security of staff," Riley told PAX in a videotaped interview. "While there's sort of an anxious movement to get going again, there are some important elements that are being attended to on both sides. The best advice is to stay in touch with the country, see what they are saying on their own website, because many of those countries have adopted best practices from CDEMA (Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency) and other authorities that are involved in these kinds of matters.
The CTO is also encouraging people to visit www.onecaribbean.org, where frequent updates are posted regarding the recovery efforts, hotel openings, and more on destinations throughout the Caribbean.
Still work to be done
While the U.S continues to be the strongest market to the Caribbean, Riley pointed out that despite a strong rebound in 2017's Q4, there's still much to be done.
"In short, despite the challenges in 2017, more visitors arrived in the Caribbean, and they spent more," Riley pointed out. "But is that enough? Is our work now done? Not by a long way. The Caribbean, with our highly competitive tourism product, has quite some distance to go until we reach our full potential.”
Riley continued: "Our first order is to stop treating tourism as a casual pursuit. It contributes from seven per cent to 80 per cent of GDP across the region. Tourism is the business that delivers foreign exchange every time a plane lands and the cruise ship docks. It reduces unemployment and delivers tax dollars. We should worry when we're not using this job-creating machine to its fullest potential and we should worry when the state of occupancy is below 70 per cent. For every 100 rooms, 30 are empty every night and this tells us we have a responsibility to market ourselves more effectively, enhance the product significantly, and to fill those empty rooms. Until we do those things we are not capitalizing on the substantial effort we've made from building the plan already, and we leave ourselves vulnerable to competition."
One of the biggest challenges that the Caribbean is currently facing is distinguishing itself as a series of separate countries, and not just one unified brand, as many make it out to be. There are 26 countries in the Caribbean, and only a handful were severely impacted by both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. Despite this, some international travellers are still hesitant to come back.
"The perception of the Caribbean not being fully back to business is evidently affecting 2018, despite the fact that we're seeing a strong recovery for the first half of the year," Zozoya explained. "Only 14 million passengers from the U.S went to the Caribbean, which is nothing compared to the potential - 330 million are so close to the Caribbean, but they wanted to stay close to home.”
Instead of jumping from one crisis to the next, the CTO acknowleged that there must be a bridge between the private and public sectors.
"As a region, we must acknowledge that to rebuild, develop and sustain the infrastructure and the image of the Caribbean, is an immense task," Riley said. "Resources will need to be developed, and realistic attention will need to be paid to the length of time it takes to rebuild an economy and repair a brand seriously affected by natural disasters.
"Reinforcing the value and the attributes of the Caribbean brand, educating the public and the travel industry on the geography of the Caribbean, and generating demand for the region’s tourism product will take time, careful strategy, and money. In other words, establishing leadership of the Caribbean Brand requires more than just sparsely-funded, ad hoc efforts."
Overall, with the good news that the Caribbean passed its benchmark of 30 million visitors, welcoming 30.1 million in spite of a turbulent 2017, the CTO predicts that 2018 will continue to ride the success of 2017's Q4, and predicts growth of two to three per cent in both stay-over and cruise arrivals.