As the Caribbean prepares to celebrate a record-breaking arrivals landmark, Rob Gill reports on the latest developments in the region.
The Caribbean is set to break through the 30 million arrivals milestone for the first time as many of the region’s most popular destinations are on course to enjoy a record-breaking 2016 for visitor numbers.
This comes on the back of last year’s record of 28.7 million tourists visiting the Caribbean, which was itself a 7% rise from 2014. The Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CA235) said that 2016 figures so far had been “pacing ahead” of the same months last year. The CTO has been predicting an overall increase of 4.5-5-5% for the entire year.
The Dominican Republic (CA300), the Caribbean’s number one destination for holidaymakers, welcomed 3.7 million arrivals between January and July – an increase of 6.9% over the same period in 2015. It was boosted by a 5% increase in arrivals from Europe, including a 24% rise in the number of Russian visitors.
Other Caribbean destinations to enjoy a successful year include Jamaica (CA130), which saw a 2.5% rise in tourist arrivals to 1.14 million for the first six months of 2016, while cruise passenger visits increased by 14.2% to 950,000. This has put the island on course to beat the four million milestone for the first time – Jamaica welcomed 3.7 million tourists in 2015. The island has been boosted by increased flights and cruise arrivals during the summer.
The UK’s favourite destination, Barbados (CA220), also increased visitor numbers by 5.6% to 321,000 in the first half of 2016. The British market accounts for 36% of all international arrivals to the island and this grew by 3% to 115,000 between January and June. The US is the second most important market with 26% of all arrivals over the same period.
Other areas to enjoy double-digit growth this year include Antigua & Barbuda (CA240) – up by 9.9%, Guyana (CA310) – up by 15.7%, and Turks & Caicos – up by 18.5%.
Despite these record-breaking figures, there are still challenges for the Caribbean destinations with perennial issues such as limited airlift, particularly between islands, alongside intense competition from other long-haul markets such as the Gulf states and the Far East. There have also been regional issues such as the Zika virus and the potential fallout from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.
Obie Wilchcombe, the new chairman of the CTO, said that despite an increase in the number of flights and arrivals, the region’s hotels have seen a decline in occupancy levels and average room rates in 2016, which he said was a “concern” and could be linked to the increased number of hotel rooms.
“We also believe it might have something to do with shared-occupancy accommodation, so we have to look at what is causing this particular peculiar circumstance,” added Wilchcombe during a press conference at the CTO’s State of the Industry Conference in Barbados.
The growth of sharing economy providers, such as Airbnb, is also a concern for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA).
The association’s president Karolin Troubetzkoy said that the industry needed to “open our eyes to the bigger picture, which is so important if we want to succeed, not only as individual businesses and destinations but also as a region”.
Troubetzkoy added that the traditional hotel industry in the Caribbean “must be prepared to understand shifting consumer motivations and find creative ways to make the sharing economy work to its advantage”.
The CHTA published The Caribbean Sharing Economy Resource Guide earlier this year as part of its efforts to help create “a level playing field” through the taxation and regulation of this emerging type of holiday accommodation.
The other significant change in the region is the reintroduction of scheduled flights between the US and Cuba (CA220) after a gap of more than 50 years (see chart below). But the big question alongside Cuba’s expected growth is how this will affect the other destinations in the Caribbean. It is early days so far with direct flights only resuming in late August and US travellers are still not officially allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism.
“We have to ask what effect the opening of Cuba to US travellers will have on the rest of the Caribbean. How will we deal with the shift of more American travellers going to Cuba and how will we make up for that?” said the CHTA’s Troubetzkoy.
In a report on the subject, the CHTA said that the Cuban situation could act as “a wake-up call” for many destinations to “elevate their game and become more competitive”.
According to the CTO, Brexit has not had any noticeable effect on travel between the UK and the Caribbean in the past few months. CTO president Obie Wilchcombe said the only impact so far has been the decline in the value of the pound against the US dollar and UK arrivals have continued to rise. The Brexit situation is being “monitored” by the CTO.
Hugh Riley, secretary general of the CTO, added: “There really is no status quo in the tourism sector. Things are constantly changing; it’s a dynamic industry – it’s vulnerable to external shocks but it always recovers. When we look at issues that affect public health, security, terrorism, economic shocks, all of these things affect the success and the sustainability of the tourism sector.”
In a longer-term move, the CTO and CHTA have signed an agreement to join other regional agencies to help develop an early-warning system to provide “tailored climate information” to the tourism industry to help it become more resilient to the potential impact of climate change.
“Our sector is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate, and we are committed to being proactive in ensuring Caribbean tourism is more resilient,” said Troubetzkoy.
While the Caribbean tourism industry fought a long – and ultimately successful – attempt to reduce the amount of Air Passenger Duty paid by holidaymakers travelling from the UK, the issue of high aviation taxes continues to be a problem.
Airline organisation Iata has identified 130 ticket taxes across the wider Latin America and Caribbean region. These include Jamaica’s departure tax, which has been increased by 150% this year from $14 to $35pp.
World Tourism and Travel Council president David Scowsill has added to the calls for Caribbean governments to remove aviation taxes as well as easing visa restrictions.
“Taxation is far too high in Caribbean aviation,” he said. “It is not quite as high as APD in the UK, but something has to be done in this region because these taxes are detrimental to GDP (gross domestic product) and people seeking to travel across the region.”
During the summer 2016 season, the Dominican Republic had the largest scheduled airline capacity in the Caribbean with more than four million seats – although this is set to change after the reintroduction of US-Cuba flights in August.
Cuba had been ranked third for capacity this summer with Puerto Rico (CA335) in second place, followed by the Bahamas (CA150), Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago (CA250).
All eyes are on Cuba (CA140) as a destination following the resumption of commercial flights from the US for the first time in more than 50 years.
Flights between the two countries resumed on August 31 when a JetBlue service (right) from Fort Lauderdale touched down at Santa Clara.
The launch of more US-Cuba services is accelerating, and by December there are scheduled to be more than 300 weekly flights to 10 Cuban cities.
The Caribbean’s largest island is already enjoying benefits accruing from a relaxation of the rules on Americans travelling to Cuba, although they can only visit for 12 specific purposes – and these do not include tourism.
Cuba is already on course to set a new record for international tourists this year, with arrivals rising by 11.7% to 2.1 million during the first half of 2016. This comes on the back of an impressive 17% increase to 3.5 million visitors during 2015.
US hotel companies are also starting to establish themselves in the destination. Marriott International opened its first Cuban property, Four Points by Sheraton Havana – formerly the Hotel Quinta Avenida – in June. The historic Hotel Inglaterra in Havana is also due to become part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection brand this month.
Spanish hotel firm Melia (CA140) is currently the biggest accommodation provider in Cuba with 27 hotels across the island. These hotels saw revenue increase by 29% during the first six months of this year as demand pushed up prices for its properties in Havana.
The lack of hotels – the island currently has around 60,000 rooms – is still expected to act as a brake on Cuba’s growth. This is set to change dramatically as the government wants to build more than 100,000 rooms over the next 15 years.
In the meantime, sharing economy accommodation platforms, including Airbnb, are stepping into the breach. Airbnb claims that it now has more than 8,000 Cuba listings even though it only introduced the destination in April 2015.
Access to Cuba from Europe is also increasing: Virgin Atlantic has just added a third weekly flight from Gatwick to Havana and will introduce a weekly route from Gatwick to Varadero from April 2017. Alitalia, part of the Etihad Airways Partner network, is also introducing Rome-Havana flights this winter.
The $3.5 billion Baha Mar resort complex in the Bahamas may finally open in the next few months following financial problems that halted construction of the project.
The complex, which was originally planned to feature four hotels offering a total of more than 2,200 rooms, had been due to open in December 2014 but construction stopped in June 2015 when the project went into bankruptcy.
The Bahamas government has agreed a deal with a Chinese bank to finance the completion of the project, which should now open in some form before the end of the 2016-17 winter season.
Also in the Bahamas, Warwick Paradise Island (CA150) was due to open its doors to guests in late October. The adults-only resort, 30 minutes from Nassau airport, features 243 rooms and suites.
Elsewhere in the region, fast-growing AMResorts (CA200) has a host of properties due to open imminently. These include Zoetry Montego Bay Jamaica and Breathless Montego Bay Resort, plus Secrets Cap Cana Resort & Spa, Dreams Dominicus La Romana and Sunscape Bavaro Beach Punta Cana – all in the Dominican Republic.
In Antigua, Elite Island Resorts (CA235) has bolstered its portfolio with the addition of the Pineapple Beach Club (above) – formerly Sandals’ Grand Pineapple Beach. The all-inclusive resort is the fourth Antiguan property to join Elite.
Other developments in Antigua (CA240) include Nonsuch Bay completing a multimillion-dollar extension. Meanwhile, Jumby Bay has refurbished its Estate House restaurant.
All-inclusive specialist Sandals (CA240) has started work on expanding Sandals Barbados on Dover Beach, which will add another 222 rooms and suites when completed in November 2017, making it the largest Sandals property in the eastern Caribbean. An overwater wedding chapel has also been added to Sandals Grande St Lucian.
Another property in Barbados, The Sandpiper (CA220), has introduced new beach suites and a lap pool.