Op-Ed: Is the Caribbean Tourism Industry Looking Up?

By S Brian Samuel
Op-Ed Contributor

By now, most (but not all) Caribbean countries have submitted their first half 2014 tourism statistics to the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO). It makes for some interesting reading. Overall, the Caribbean recorded a weighted average growth rate of 5.2 percent in visitor arrivals during the first half of 2014 (some countries reported shorter periods, but all included the bulk of the winter tourist season). This sector performance reads like my old school report cards: Good – but could do better! Cruise ship arrivals also increased, but at a lower rate of 4.6 percent.

behind the numbers, we can identify winners and losers. Montserrat recorded the highest growth rate – 35 percent – but this was from a very low base. Of the recognized tourist destinations, Grenada recorded the highest growth in tourist arrivals: 18.6 percent. It is easy to put this down to the opening of the 225-room Sandals LaSource in December 2013. But happily this is not the case; the first half of 2014 saw an increase in tourist arrivals across the board; not just Sandals. If Sandals did an average occupancy of 75 percent; they would have been responsible for about 5 percent of Grenada’s growth; meaning that the rest of the tourist sector saw an increase of about 13 percent – a creditable achievement after so many years of decline.

Looking

The Caribbean’s tourism juggernauts, the Dominican Republic and Cuba (collectively responsible for 48 percent of all Caribbean arrivals), continue to chug along; recording growth rates of 8.5 and 4.6 percent respectively. The third in the Caribbean big leagues, Jamaica, continues to limp along, showing a growth rate of 1.6 percent for 2014 to date, about the same growth experienced over the last two or three years. Considering the huge investments by Spanish hotel investors in Jamaica over the past decade, this paltry growth rate is disappointing.

Encouragingly, Haiti recorded an increase of 14.9 percent in visitor arrivals in the first three months of 2014. However one wonders how many of these visitors are genuine tourists; versus government and NGO types. Whoever they are, it all helps this beleaguered nation that so badly needs all the help it can get. The government has bold ambitions to develop tourism, particularly on the island of Île-à-Vache along the country’s south coast; with plans to build a new international airport, roads, electricity generation, and over a thousand international class resort rooms. How this will square with the desperate poverty afflicting Haiti, including the island itself, remains to be seen.

Collectively, the OECS fared better than the average, showing a growth rate of 6.4 percent in first half 2014. However, the OECS continues to live on the margins, responsible for only 6 percent of all Caribbean arrivals. On the losing end; Suriname, St. Kitts, Curacao and the Bahamas declined, while Barbados continued to flatline.

Where did these new tourists come from? It’s a mixed bag; Grenada, St Lucia and the DR all show strong growth out of the United States; while others have done well in European markets. The USA continues to be the dominant market for Caribbean tourism, accounting for 38.4 percent of all arrivals in the first half of 2014.

However some industry insiders are secretly dreading the day that Cuba finally opens up to US visitors, and releases a flood of pent-up demand. I imagine that this would negatively impact the mainstream Caribbean destinations: DR, Jamaica and the Bahamas; I don’t see Cuba having too much of an impact on the OECS.

It can’t be long now – can it?

Interestingly enough, about the same number of cruise passengers as stay-over tourists visited the Caribbean during first half 2014: 8.5 million versus 8.6 million respectively (not including Cozumel and Cancun). Martinique has shown huge growth in cruise ship arrivals; up 69.8 percent over the first three months of the year. Dominica and Belize, the nature destinations, also showed strong growth.

S Brian Samuel can be reached at Stevenbriansamuel@gmail.com.

Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.

 

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