“The Caribbean had been performing at a healthy growth rate of 5.2 percent between January and June,” said CTO (Caribbean Tourism Organization) chair Joy Jibrilu at the State of the Tourism Industry Conference in October, and growth continued to soar this summer until September, when two Category 5 hurricanes crashed the party. Let’s see how this and other events of 2017 will affect the islands—and you—in 2018.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria
The ways this double disaster will affect travel are not always the obvious ones:
• You know that the storms didn’t hurt the majority of islands, but does the public know that? Unlikely. (I wish I had a dollar for every time a newscaster pronounced “Barbuda” as “Barbados.”) And does the public realize that hurricane season is over after Thanksgiving? Also unlikely, so you’re probably spending more time than usual teaching clients remedial geography, and you’ll be doing it in 2018, too. At least you won’t be alone: Travel Leaders Group, among others, is also trying to edify the public.
• For the Caribbean as a whole, says CTO general secretary Hugh Riley, “the revised forecast for 2017 is now at 1 to 2 percent.” However, some islands are, of course, gaining visitors at the expense of others. This is most dramatic with cruises, because ships dropped stops at the saints—Barths, Croix, Juan, Maarten/Martin, Thomas—and rescheduled to unaffected destinations (e.g. Grenada). However, cruise lines won’t permanently abandon islands. Some Royal Caribbean and Viking ships have returned to San Juan, Disney will soon be there, cruise ships have already returned to St. Maarten and St. Thomas, and at least 90 ships will visit St. Croix in 2018.
• But what about land-based tourism? JetBlue has diminished its capacity to San Juan, aiming to redirect some aircraft to Aruba, Barbados, and Grand Cayman. The airline may not return in full until late 2018. And here’s a bad omen from Canada: Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing, and Air Transat have canceled Sint Maarten flights for this winter. That hurts other islands (e.g. Anguilla, St. Barths), too.
• Then again, the re-opening of hotels on some affected islands is outpacing the reconstruction of homes: As I write this, 60 percent of Puerto Rico is without electricity, yet more than 100 hotels have re-opened; next month San Juan will even host the CHTA Marketplace. But is it heartless to visit a place where employees live in battered homes outside the tourist zone? Not really, says CTO’s Riley, reasoning that “the best way to help the Caribbean is to visit the Caribbean.”
More White House Restrictions on Travel to Cuba
In June Pres. Trump set off alarms by narrowing the options on visits to Cuba, but for perspective, remember this:
(1) There are only 340,000 or so people-to-people visits a year, a mere fraction of the 14-plus million who visit the Caribbean. So even if the program were abolished, your Caribbean bookings would not go
into a tailspin.
(2) Of Cuba’s four million or so annual visitors, not one tourist—only American diplomats—has reported illness from “sonic attacks.”
(3) Still, add that mystery to the new ban on stays in hotels, and you’ll see a higher percentage of Americans choosing cruise ship-based trips via Carnival, Celestyal Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas, etc.
(4) Fewer American tour operators will offer hotel stays now, but several offer land-based people-to-people using privately owned casa particulares (e.g. Espiritu Travel, Friendly Planet Travel). “We have all seen a drop in Cuba bookings,” says Peggy Goldman of Friendly Planet Travel, and she expects that to continue “until a clear policy emerges… Independent travel, even of the type that involves people-to-people itineraries…has been effectively cut off. For now, we intend to make Cuba available and affordable… In my opinion, travel to Cuba may slow down for awhile, but it will continue and eventually grow even stronger than before.” Meanwhile, the new travel restrictions have stopped and even reversed rates for Havana hotels that were burdensome for Canadians.
Hotels Opened. Then More Opened.
Do discounted room rates, which may translate into lower commissions, help you sell more vacations? I hope so, because competition to fill rooms will be fierce this winter. In part, that’s because of the hurricanes, but there’s more: The room supply is increasing so quickly.
At last count, almost 250 hotel projects totaling more than 42,000 rooms were under contract in the Caribbean-Mexico region—a 29 percent increase over September 2016. Blue Diamond alone opened six Caribbean resorts in 2017, and that’s not counting the rebranding of Jolly Beach. Three major resorts opened in Jamaica in just four days during JAPEX, and one is the blockbuster Jewel Montego Bay. Park Hyatt has unveiled its first hotel in the Caribbean (on St. Kitts), Hilton announced it would extend its brand to Saint Lucia, and Airbnb’s room count on the islands soared to 80,000.
SVG’s New Airport Opened
The stars have long visited Mustique, but total visitors to St. Vincent and the Grenadines have been kept down because it was hard to get there. Then, in early 2017, Argyle International Airport finally opened, Air Canada Rouge announced it would fly there, and nonstops from the more populous United States are almost inevitable. What next—a new owner for Young
Island? Boutique resorts on Union and/or Mayreau islands?
Bermuda Rediscovered Its Mojo
Bermuda hosted the Americas Cup in June and touted adventure to lure younger travelers. Rosewood Tucker’s Point acquired a new name and renovation plan, and now Century Casinos, Inc., has applied for a license to operate. Whatever the decision on the Century casino, Bermuda is working to respark its tourism industry, and next winter you might even be able to book Bermuda for clients who want some Monte Carlo elegance with their roulette.
Tourists Rediscovered Kingston
Until recently, few tourists visited Kingston, Jamaica, but in 2016 a highway finally connected it to the north coast, and Island Routes started offering day-trips. This year Sandals and Marriott partnered on an AC Hotel (opening 2019), Devon House declared itself the Gastronomic Centre of Jamaica, and a new culinary trail guided visitors into the Blue Mountains. In sum, the Jamaica Tourism Board expects leisure travelers to spend more time in the capital, as happens in the Dominican Republic.
Nassau-Paradise Binged on Openings
Baha Mar opened at last, Atlantis Paradise Island re-invented The Cove and The Coral, the Warwick and RIU adults-only resorts opened, the Pointe Nassau started work on reviving its swath of downtown, and the One&Only Ocean Club just became a Four Seasons. Your options for 2018 bookings on Nassau-Paradise Island have suddenly escalated.
Sandals Awakened Tobago
In October Sandals Resorts Intl. announced that it would build two properties, a Sandals and a Beaches, in often-bypassed Tobago. And SRI builds things fast. If you have visited Tobago, you know that this is a game-changer.