First-Half 2016 visitor arrivals up in the Caribbean
Most Caribbean destinations reported increased overnight visitor arrivals in the first half of 2016, with several countries producing double-digit increases according to Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) data. Several destinations continued recent patterns of strong growth, the islands in positive first-half territory include some countries that North Americans rarely visit.
A handful of destinations also recorded significant arrivals declines. But overall, the statistics project a positive trend of growing visitor appeal for the region.
Of the 27 destinations providing data for the CTO study, five reported land-based visitor arrival for the period from January to July. Of that group, four recorded year-over-year arrivals increases ranging from 0.8 percent for the Cayman Islands to a 16.6 percent increase for Belize.
Another 11 Caribbean destinations reported arrivals for the period between January and June. Of that group, 10 reported higher arrivals ranging from Curacao’s 1.5 percent increase to Curacao’s 15.7 percent upswing.
Released in August, CTO’s half-year data tracks major Caribbean destinations and includes Bermuda and the Turks & Caicos, which geographically are not part of the region. The totals also include destinations to which US vacationers rarely travel, including Guyana and Suriname.
Otherwise, the US continued as the Caribbean’s largest overall passenger source market, recording another successful half-year. Sixteen of the 22 destinations to report US arrivals in the first half of 2016 recorded increases. Only six countries reported declines in US arrivals.
Between January and June, nine destinations recorded increased US arrivals, led by Grenada’s 26.2 percent gain. Curacao was the only destination to record decreased US arrivals during the period. Belize (25.5 percent), Antigua & Barbuda (20.3 percent), Barbados (13.1 percent) and Bermuda (10.6 percent) all recorded double-digit US visitor increases in the first half of 2016.
Conversely, Caribbean destinations struggled to achieve growth from the Canadian market. Of the 24 CTO countries to report land-based arrivals from Canada in the first six months of 2016, only eight recorded increased year-over year arrivals increases while 16 destinations reported decreases.
Curacao (6.7 percent) and Guyana (4.7 percent) were the only countries to report significant arrival increases from Canada during the period.
Obie Wilchcombe, CTO’s chairman and tourism minister for the Bahamas, acknowledged the region’s struggle with Canadian travelers, which he tied to that nation’s flagging economy. Nevertheless he said the mostly positive arrivals data represents Caribbean tourism’s resilience in the face of challenges that vary from Zika virus fears to uncertainty regarding the US presidential election to devastating regional storms.
“I think it is imperative for us to focus on the fact that this has not been a bad year for the Caribbean thus far,” Wilchcombe said at a September CTO conference in Barbados. “The challenges have come from Canada, and I think we are all aware of the circumstances and the troubling economy in Canada. But by in large we have seen tremendous growth.”
He continued, “We’ve seen growth in our airlift and we’ve seen growth in cruise. We’ve seen our airlift increase by 15.7 million seats this year so far, which is significant for all of us.”
Despite the overall success, some destinations suffered steep first half arrivals declines including Dominica, where arrivals declined 9.8 percent one year after suffering an estimated $200 million in damage to public and tourism infrastructure due to tropical storm Erika in August 2015.
Haiti’s three-year record of growing visitor arrivals was halted by a sharp 14.5 percent first half decline. Tourism is expected to continue to suffer in the short term following the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew. Trinidad & Tobago (down 5.9 percent) St. Lucia (down 1.2 percent) and the US Virgin Islands (down 0.9 percent) all reported somewhat smaller first half visitor declines.
As Wilchcombe indicated cruise ship arrivals increased for most Caribbean destinations in the first half of 2016, although the growth was not as widespread as the land-based arrivals growth. In all 13 countries recorded higher first-half cruise arrivals, while 11 reported year-over-year declines.
The Dominican Republic (58.4 percent) and the British Virgin Islands (48.4 percent) recorded the largest year-over-year increases, with totals in each destination boosted by the launch of new cruise facilities. The $85 million Amber Cove port in the Dominican Republic city of Puerto Plata opened last October, shortly after the British Virgin Islands completed a $52 million expansion of its own cruise pier.
Trinidad & Tobago, Grenada (33.2 percent), Martinique (21.0 percent) Aruba (20.1 percent) and Jamaica also posted double-digit cruise arrivals increases in the first half of this year. Somewhat surprisingly, double-digit declines were recorded in counties that traditionally are strong cruise markets including St. Maarten (down 17.7 percent), St. Lucia (down 16.1 percent) and Puerto Rico (down 14.2 percent).
Although the overall numbers paint a picture of a strong Caribbean tourism market, the region often referred to as the world’s most tourism-dependent continues to face significant challenges. Wilchcombe noted for example that the strong first half visitor arrivals have been accompanied by lower hotel occupancy across the region.
“The trouble is we are seeing declines in occupancy and average daily room rates and that concerns us,” he said. “We believe it has something to do with increased stock and sharing economy accommodations.”
Tourism stakeholders will need to explore innovative approaches to maintain the region’s growth and address such challenges, said Hugh Riley, CTO’s secretary general.
“We have to keep on looking at the demands of our visitors,” said. “Those demands change all the time. Tourism today in the Caribbean and globally is nothing like it used to be even a dozen years ago. We should keep meeting the needs of the new tourists. They research differently, they travel differently, they stay differently.”