There were few regions in the world where the global economic crisis hampered tourism more than the Caribbean.
Figures from the world tourist organisation UNWTO show that while the international tourism market grew between 4% and 6.5% each year from 2010 to 2014, the Caribbean region grew only 1.6% in 2010, and 1.8% in 2013.
In fact, only Africa and the troubled Middle East have grown more slowly since the recession.
And the Caribbean’s UK market has been a particular struggle. Stats from the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) show that since a high of 1,373,600 UK holidaymakers in 2007, that number has fallen by more than a quarter to less than a million.
CAA data on all traffic from the UK to Caribbean airports, including both scheduled and charter flights, and both leisure, business and VFR traffic. The CAA data does not include Cuba, Dominican Republic or Mexico.
Caribbean Tourism Organisation statistics of UK arrivals to all participating destinations. Includes Dominican Republic and Cuba but not Mexico. The 2013 figure is approximated at “under a million”.
The unfairness of Air Passenger Duty (APD), which has seen British passengers pay more in tax to fly to the Caribbean than to the US - has certainly played a part.
The rapidly expanding all-inclusive market in Cancun and the Riviera Maya has also tempted customers away from the traditional Caribbean; CAA figures show traffic from the UK to Cancun airport has almost doubled since 2006, from 340,430 to 657,980 last year. There has also been increasing competition from the Indian Ocean and Middle East.
But indications from the first six months of the year suggest a more promising outlook for the UK market to the Caribbean, and for the region as a whole.
In the first quarter of this year, tourism grew 4.7% overall in the Caribbean compared with the same period last year, while the UK specifically was up 6%.
More recent statistics from individual islands show that by mid-year, the UK market was up almost 10% to Antigua, 8% to Barbados, 12% to Jamaica, 16% to Grenada, and 20% to the Dominican Republic.
A significant factor in these strong performances has been the extra capacity British Airways put into the Caribbean for summer 2014.
Last year saw BA switch some capacity away from the Caribbean (sending three flights to Orlando instead, and cancelling its Puerto Rico route). But this year, the airline added another flight to each of St Lucia, Antigua, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Kingston, Jamaica, for the season April to October 2014.
For winter 2014-15 too, BA is increasing capacity, with its thrice-weekly Dom-Rep/Antigua double-drop service switching to two direct Dom Rep services, and two direct Antigua services. BA is also laying on two additional Barbados services (up from 10 to 12 per week) and a fourth weekly service to Kingston.
Critical to Antigua’s growth has been Thomas Cook’s launch of an Antigua route from Manchester last November, along with playing host to the England-West Indies Twenty20 Series in February.
The forthcoming alteration to BA’s route means even greater capacity for winter 2014-15. “Several tour operators tell me they’ve sold more Antigua already this year than they did the whole of last year, so it’s very positive,” says the tourist board’s Joel Henry.
Big hitters: Antigua hosted the England-West Indies Twenty20 Series in February
Cook is also to restart a Dominican Republic route this winter, which the tourist board hopes will help the country finish the year around 10% up from the UK.
Tui Travel’s chief executive Peter Long stated in April that Jamaica would be of strategic importance for the firm going forward, when Jamaica became the first Caribbean island with a Sensatori resort, which opened in May. With a new flight from Birmingham to Montego Bay this winter, Tui’s capacity to Jamaica will have doubled over three years by summertime.
Barbados, which remains the most popular island for the UK market, has had a healthy start to the year, up 8.3% between January and July.
St Lucia reports UK visitors were up 8% up in the first seven months of this year. The tourist board is incentivising agents during Caribbean Month with the chance to win vouchers and places on a fam trip.
Grenada registered a 16% increase in UK arrivals in the first half of this year, thanks mainly to the launch of Sandals LaSource - a hotel with double the number of rooms that its predecessor LaSource offered. When England plays the West Indies in a test series in April 2015, matches will be held in Grenada for the first time (in addition to Barbados and Antigua) which, along with the Atlantic Odyssey finishing in Grenada this year, are seen as boons for the island.
”New hotel rooms should have a trickle effect, helping us create more demand for airlift into the region”
Jeff Vasser, Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association
While other carriers have increased capacity to the Caribbean for the winter, Virgin Atlantic’s has remained largely the same. Sam Lindfield, route revenue manager at Virgin Atlantic, notes that the airline has seen real growth in Upper Class passenger volumes to St Lucia, Grenada, Antigua and Barbados this year, and growth in Premium Economy to Jamaica and Havana.
Sister company Virgin Holidays no longer delivers the same volume to the Caribbean as it once did, but the operator says the region still performs very strongly, though Mexico takes a sizeable slice of that business.
Specialist operators typically fared more positively during the recession - Caribtours grew sales every year, and 5% this year. ITC Luxury Travel, which began as a Caribbean specialist, has seen five consecutive years of growth in its Caribbean business, and is this year selling at 10% up on 2013. Long-haul specialist Premier Holidays, meanwhile, has reintroduced the Caribbean after a gap of two years.
A resurgence in property development is another indicator of confidence in the region. Smith Travel Research reports that in June 2014, there were 163 hotels in the pipeline for the Caribbean and Mexico, totalling 27,690 rooms.
This represents a 22% rise in the number of rooms under construction compared with June 2013, and a 19% increase in the number of rooms under contract. While 8,069 of those rooms are in Mexico alone, there are some major projects on the islands: the 2,600 Baha Mar complex, comprising five hotels on Nassau Paradise Island, which opens in spring 2015, and the 134-room Park Hyatt St Kitts.
Jeff Vasser, the recently appointed director general of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, sees hotel expansion as key to the region’s success. “It’s important to keep things fresh - people want to try new things,” he says.
“The number of air-seats coming into the region is not what it’s been in the past. New hotel rooms should have a trickle effect, helping us create more demand for airlift into the region to make sure those rooms are filled.”
Smith Travel Research data shows that occupancy levels, average room rates and revenue per available room have all been increasing steadily since 2010, all signs of the improving “health of the region”, according to Vasser.
April 2015 is a date hoteliers and operators selling to the UK market have long awaited, since from the start of next financial year, bands C and D of the APD system will be eradicated, placing the Caribbean in the same bracket as all other long-haul destinations.
The reform has been hailed as a “complete victory” by the CTO, which feels the playing field has finally been levelled.
“It is a competitive marketplace and anything that allows the region to compete is appreciated”, says UK director of marketing Carol Hay. It’s too early for significant post-April business to have come in, but Tui Travel says prices for next summer will be lower than before, which seems likely to encourage bookings.
Specialist operator Caribtours has always played down the impact of APD on its higher-spending customer base, although it welcomes the reform. Forward bookings for 2015 are flying for Caribtours, but product manager Katherine Hobbs has a different explanation: “The American market booked very early for 2014, which meant later-booking Brits weren’t able to get what they wanted this year. So they’re booking well ahead for next year and we’re already 50% up year-on-year for 2015 sales.”
Competition from keenly priced beach resorts elsewhere means the Caribbean may never see a return to the levels of British holidaymakers it enjoyed a decade ago, but for the time being, it seems, the tide has turned on the downward trend.