Above: Bonaire (all photos by CJ)
By Alexander Britell
ORLANDO — Keith Sahm is the general manager at the Sunset House in Grand Cayman, and he’s seen the ups and downs of the Caribbean diving industry, which, like the rest of the region’s tourism sector, was hit hard by the downturn.
But Sunset House, which counts about 95 percent of its guests as divers, had its best October on record last month.
It seems the Caribbean diving industry is showing signs of improvement. So what’s helping to drive one of the strongest niches of the Caribbean market?
For Sahm, a constrained global economic environment is encouraging more divers from markets like the United States and Canada to eschew far-off places like Micronesia or Malaysia in favour of a destination that’s significantly closer.
“With the way the global economy is right now, it’s made the world much bigger again,” Sahm said.
That’s crucial for an industry that represents a significant portion of the contribution of tourism to regional GDP. In Belize alone, for example, coral reef and mangrove-associated tourism has brought in more than $100 million annually, according to estimates.
Above: DEMA in Orlando
Sahm was speaking to Caribbean Journal at the DEMA conference last week in Orlando, the world’s leading diving industry conference that featured a sizable contingent on hand from the Caribbean.
Above: the Bahamas’ display at the event
The DEMA show saw strong showings from Caribbean diving mainstays like Bonaire and the Cayman Islands, along with destinations looking to grow their sectors like Curacao — an island which is actually still discovering new dive sites each year, according to Andre Rojer, marketing coordinator at the Curacao Tourism Corporation – North America.
“We have a region in totality that is perfect for diving — warm Caribbean waters, you don’t need a dry suit, we have so many different species of fish, colourful reefs,” Rojer said. “There’s no doubt that diving is important to the region — and we have to keep it this way in terms of reef conservation, and be on the lookout to minimize lionfish invasion and other threats we’re facing within the Caribbean.”
Above: Curacao’s display
The annual diving trade show, held this year in Orlando, Fla., brought together thousands of patrons and exhibitors from the industry over the course of nearly a week.
“Bonaire’s presence at DEMA Show allows Bonaire to exhibit on the world stage and celebrate the success of the Bonaire National Marine Park as the cornerstone of our Sustainable Tourism policy,” Tourism Corporation Bonaire Director Ethsel Pieternella told Caribbean Journal. “The DEMA Show is unquestionably one of the most important marketing tools we have to promote Bonaire as ‘The Divers Paradise.'”
For most exhibitors, there was a general feeling of optimism about the state of the industry.
“Everyone’s house is not worth as much as they thought it was five or six years ago, the 401k doesn’t have as much money as they thought,” Sahm said. “But divers are still diving, they’re just sticking closer to home and the Caribbean offers that.”