Why Are They So Popular Now?
As Jerry Reed astutely observed, when you’re hot, you’re hot. Now, that line might lead to an article about Cuba, but I’m here to say that these three countries are sizzling, too. Tourist arrivals in Antigua and Barbuda rose 9.9 percent in 2016 over 2015 for January through July, and U.S. stayovers jumped 20.3 percent. Barbados reported international arrivals up 5.6 percent and U.S. growth of 13 percent. And just when it might have seemed that the Dominican Republic’s travel sector couldn’t possibly grow any more, it expanded another 6.9 percent. It was also the only Caribbean destination to show substantial growth from Canada, and although this article is about land-based travel, I’ll add that the D.R.’s cruise ship arrivals, with an assist from Carnival Cruise Line’s new Amber Cove port, have skyrocketed 58.4 percent.
All this, mind you, while Caribbean travel as a whole, which enjoyed record highs in 2015, hit some snags this year because of Zika virus fears, an unnaturally warm winter on North America’s east coast, currency weakness in Canada and Europe, and Hurricane Matthew’s rampage. So we asked some leading tour operators to explain this trio’s success. We also asked which resorts, in particular, are rocking their reservations systems.
Antigua and Barbuda
“This country is quickly gaining steam as a sought-after destination, and it’s been voted ‘World’s Most Romantic Destination’ year after year by World Travel Awards,” says Elizabeth Moriarty, Delta Vacations’ v.p. for product development. “With a focus on sustainable tourism, a vast selection of beaches (365!), and a new airport offering a customer-friendly experience, Antigua is getting great press.”
Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions, points out that Antigua “delivers the daydream consistently, which makes it a fail-safe recommendation among our agent community. On top of that, many of the premier properties we carry there have received favorable media attention.”
The media are also paying attention to Barbuda, thanks to Barbuda Belle Luxury Beach Hotel (opened 2015) and actor Robert De Niro’s backing of a larger high-end development planned for that island. Meanwhile, on Antigua, Elite Island Resorts just invested millions to turn the former Sandals Pineapple resort into the Pineapple Beach Club, and Antigua’s pipeline includes the five-star Callaloo Cay, a $2 billion Setai condo-and-resort complex, and a 400-room Beaches resort.
For now, “60 percent of our business for Antigua is to Sandals Grande Antigua Resort & Spa,” says Christina Favre, GOGO Vacations team leader for the Caribbean. Contributing to its popularity are its 11 restaurants, a newly renovated spa, and a Sandals-style plethora of sports, entertainment, and accommodations, not to mention airport transfers. Delta Vacations, too, is seeing a lot of bookings for this Sandals. At press time Delta Vacations’ many options included roundtrip air from Atlanta and seven nights during high season in a Caribbean Grande Luxe Poolside Room for $3,237 pp dbl.
Antigua is especially strong on one-of-a-kind all-inclusives, and top performers for Travel Impressions include Conde Nast Gold List honoree Galley Bay Resort & Spa, The Verandah Resort & Spa, St. James’s Club, and Jolly Beach Resort & Spa, which Wiseman likes “for budget-conscious travelers and families” who want “an onsite wellness center, multiple dining venues, and entertainment.” Delta Vacations and GOGO offer packages to these hotels, too.
“The addition of Sandals Barbados raised the profile of the island,” says Delta Vacations’ Moriarty, adding that it already had “amazing music, great nightlife, friendly people, and Zagat-rated restaurants. The island also offers a wide variety of activities and experiences, including surfing, golf, fantastic beaches, fine food, dynamic nightlife and a wildlife preserve.” Not to mention events heralding 50 years of independence.
Travel Impressions’ Wiseman adds that Barbados’ “association as Rihanna’s homeland and her glamorously relaxed image doesn’t hurt, while more experienced travelers are drawn to the island’s British culture and gracious service.” GOGO’s Favre reports that despite not having any additional product for Barbados, at least for the moment, “our 2017 business is currently strong for both room nights and revenue.”
A modest statement, because GOGO and other quality packagers do have some new product, such as Waves Hotel & Spa, a member of the Elegant Hotels Group (see recommend.com/destinations/wellness-at-all-inclusives-that-get-it), and they may soon have more when The Sands Hotel opens in early 2017 and Sandals Barbados adds another 222 new rooms by late 2017. I visited that Sandals while attending the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s recent State of the Tourism Industry Conference, and the cranes and construction crews were moving at a good pace, giving me the sense that the additions will meet or even beat their deadline.
What else are travelers booking in Barbados? “Hilton Barbados and Coconut Court Beach Hotel are top sellers for customers looking for an in-depth cultural and culinary island experience,” says Moriarty. “For 2017, Sandy Lane is pacing quite well, and business is trending more towards higher end product,” reports Favre. “Mango Bay Barbados and Coral Reef Club are also pacing positive for first quarter 2017, [and] we are seeing a strong increase for tours booked through Island Routes.”
“This destination has been a hotbed of new development,” says Wiseman. “The key to its success has been its ability to diversify with best-in-class tourism offerings for all market segments,” he adds. “The Dominican Republic is a one-size-fits-all destination, and…as an added bonus, many of the resorts are all-inclusive, adding incredible value to the convenience of frequent flights from many gateways.”
One reason the D.R. is hot, explains Moriarty, is “the new resorts that opened in 2016 as well as the resorts that will open in 2017 are in the league with some of the best all-inclusive resorts in the world.” This is not to ignore the aforementioned toll that Zika fears and the Northeast’s insanely warm winter took on bookings, says Favre. Nonetheless, she and her GOGO team are upbeat. “The large number of hotels that are opening between now and mid-2017 for Dominican Republic should increase the demand,” says Favre.
Favre’s list of hot newcomers includes Excellence El Carmen, RIU Republic, Nickelodeon, Now Onyx, Secrets Cap Cana, Majestic Mirage, Sunscape Bavaro, and Sunscape Dominican Beach, all in or near Punta Cana, and Dreams Dominicus, closest to LRM (La Romana International Airport). Most of them are either open for sale now or will be in December; the Majestic Mirage and the two Sunscapes open for sale Jan. 15.
Wiseman names the Majestic Mirage and the Sunscapes as popular additions for Travel Impressions, too. Other good performers include the Hard Rock Hotel (“delivers total ‘wow’”), Melia Caribe Tropical (“The Level is a great category for upgrades”), Nickelodeon Punta Cana, and Luxury Bahia Principe Fantasia, Don Pablo Collection, opening this month with introductory rates.
The adults-only RIU Republic “is popular with Delta Vacations’ customers because it provides excellent value without compromising service,” says Moriarty. She describes the new Nickelodeon (see recommend.com/destinations/nickelodeon-resort-in-punta-cana/) as “perfect for family and friends traveling with or without kids.” Her company is offering one week in a Pad Suite during high season for $2,015 pp dbl, including roundtrip from Atlanta, transfers, and taxes. That room would cost $1,428 pp for a family of four (kids age 8 and 10), $1,339 if one of the children is 2 or younger, $1,628 if one of them is 16 or over. While the children are meeting SpongeBob or playing at the aquapark or Just Kiddin’ Activities Center, the teens gravitate to the sports hub, where they can learn things like archery as well as more conventional sports. And archery, they tell us clueless grown-ups, is hot.