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Sunday 9 August, 2020

Caribbean Year in Review: Travel and Tourism

Following the devastating hurricanes of 2017, the Caribbean went into 2018 determined to show the world that it was open for business.

Islands who weren’t affected but suffered the fall out of declining tourist arrivals doubled their efforts to attract visitors to their shores while the ones who were affected worked assiduously to get their tourism sectors back on its legs.

According to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s Monthly Statistics, up until November 2018, out of the 24 destinations reporting international arrival data for 2018, growth was recorded in 15, while declines were recorded in nine.

Growth was recorded in three of the four destinations reporting arrivals for the period January to October led by Belize (16.2 percent) and followed by Grenada (9.0 percent), and the Dominican Republic (6.2 percent). Trinidad and Tobago (-5.2 percent) was the only destination registering a decline in arrivals during this time.

Fuelling the growth in arrivals was the return of several airlines to the hurricane-afflicted islands and new partnerships between some islands and major carriers.

In May, American Airlines announced that it would be the first US carrier to serve St. Vincent and the Grenadines with the introduction of year-round Saturday service from MIA.

The airline also introduced new flights to Aruba, Cayman Islands, The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. American also added an extra frequency from Miami to seven Caribbean destinations.

Sunwing Airlines from Canada also made its debut in the region with a new flight to Tobago in December and flights to Grenada. In December, Jamaica welcomed low-cost carrier Swoop, LIAT resumed flights to the US Virgin Islands in October and in January, Caribbean Airlines launched its twice-weekly service to Cuba.

Arrivals were also boosted by improvements in the cruise sector.

In his end of year message, CTO General Secretary Hugh Riley said regional cruise visits grew in each month since May, with the region registering growth of 13.7 per cent during the May to September period and 17.1 per cent in the third quarter of 2018.

Hotel Occupancy declined

While improvements were recorded in arrivals, the region experienced a decline in hotel occupancy. Statistics from STR, a data and analytics specialist, shows a decline of -1.3 percent for hotel occupancy at the end of November with 65.4 percent. March registered the highest occupancy rates at 74 percent with September, the busiest month for hurricanes, registering the lowest at 48.9 percent.

The decline in hotel occupancy did not escape the Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association (CHTA) which warned in November that empty hotel rooms are costing the Caribbean billions of dollars in economic opportunity each year.

“We have the room capacity across most of our destinations to further increase the economic impact of tourism. Focused efforts by the public and private sectors to fill the large amount of unused room inventory will yield considerable results," said Frank Comito, CEO and Director General of the CHTA.

Despite the slump in hotel occupancy, investments in room stock continued to increase. In her New Year’s message, CHTA President Patricia Affonso-Dass said 5000 new hotels rooms came online regionally in 2018 with over 25,000 more in the construction and planning stages while existing hotels continue to invest in refurbishments and introduce new services and amenities. Among those welcoming new hotels was Grenada which welcomed the Silversands Hotel in December while Antigua and Barbuda announced the construction of 15 new properties including the first Waldorf Astoria in the Caribbean.

The impact of Airbnb on the hotel industry cannot be discounted. The home-sharing platform has seen an increase in visitors booking accommodation on its platform with over 1.6 million guests booking accommodation over the last year, an increase of 117 percent compared to 2016. 

On October 24, the CTO signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Airbnb, which has agreements with 14 countries in the region, to cooperate on areas of mutual interest including: the promotion of Caribbean countries as desirable tourism destinations, the undertaking of joint research to understand the impact of the home-sharing on economic recovery following the 2017 hurricane season and other areas of mutual interest to both organisations.

Intra-regional travel slumps

The decline in intra-regional travel was a big topic at the Caribbean Development Bank’s Board of Governors Conference in March in Grenada.

A study by the CDB showed that when it comes to intra-regional connectivity, most borrowing member countries saw a decline with T&T registering an increase. Major causes for this decline were linked to high costs of travel and taxes, lack of liberalisation and inefficient operations of assets including aircraft.

Several regional Prime Ministers have called for action on the regional travel issues, particularly the reduction of airport taxes and multiple security checks for intra-regional travellers.

At the CARICOM Heads of Government meeting in Port-of-Spain in November to discuss the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), a resolution was taken and was included in the St Ann’s Declaration to examine the re-introduction of the single domestic space for passengers in the region and to work towards having a single security check for direct transit passengers on multi-stop intra-Community flights as ways of encouraging more travel between islands.

Appeals were made by Antigua’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne for regional support of LIAT, which has been making improvements to its on-time service as well as baggage handling, among other things.

In an effort to improve its service as well, Caribbean Airlines announced in December that within the next three years it will be replacing its fleet and during the course of 2018 announced innovations to its service such as extra leg room and Wi-Fi to entice travellers.

Marketing the region

While individual islands ramped up their tourism marketing in new and old source markets, the region united to market the Caribbean as a whole. The Rhythm Never Stops campaign was launched in October when the CHTA and CTO unveiled the fruit of months of collaborative efforts to showcase the Caribbean in a new, dynamic digital campaign.

The initial phase of the online campaign ran for 12 weeks in time for the winter season and highlighted destinations such as The Bahamas in the north; Cayman Islands and Jamaica in the western Caribbean; the French department of Martinique and its eastern Caribbean neighbour Saint Lucia, as well as Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago in the south.

The CTO has dubbed 2019 The Year of Festivals to focus on the myriad events that have become an integral part of the Caribbean tourism calendar.

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