After strong 2012, Caribbean confident as Q1 stats trickle in

By Gay Nagle Myers
A beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.Depending on whom you ask, Caribbean tourism is "holding its own," "up across the board" or "rallying" -- in other words, as it nears the midpoint of the year, the Caribbean appears to be doing pretty well.

Performance in 2012 will be hard to top, given a 5.4% bump over 2011, to 25 million overnight visitors, the highest number of stayovers in five years, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO).

"Caribbean tourism will continue to hold its own this year, although growth will be slower than in 2012," said Hugh Riley, CTO secretary general. "We project a 3% increase over 2012."

The World Tourism Organization has higher expectations, however, forecasting growth of 4% to 5% this year. It also predicts visitor numbers will top out at 30 million by the year 2030.

"We have to make sure that the growth in Caribbean tourism is ahead of or at the very least on pace with worldwide growth," Riley said. "Our slice of the industry has to continue to get bigger all the time."

Beverly Nicholson-Doty, CTO chairwoman and U.S. Virgin Islands commissioner of tourism, said there's cause for optimism in the rise in arrival numbers, particularly from North America, coupled with an upswing in hotel revenue and the increase in tourist spend.

"All the signs suggest that Caribbean tourism is rallying," she said.

The CTO's statistics are dependent upon each member country compiling their visitor numbers and reporting them to the organization in a timely manner. There often is a lag of a couple of months.

So far this year, with only half of the 31 member countries reporting, preliminary figures show strong performance in March, up 4.3% over March 2012, although January and February were down due to low consumer and business confidence and the economic situation, the CTO said.

Within the region, the outlook varies from country to country.

Preliminary data from the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism showed a 3.3% growth in tourist arrivals during Q1, primarily due to an increase in cruise arrivals, while air arrivals declined.

Jamaica, which welcomed 1.9 million stayover visitors in 2012, has seen new airlift this year from markets such as Russia and the Czech Republic as well as increased service from U.S. gateways, which is helping to boost arrivals.

The Dominican Republic led the region in 2012 with 4.6 million stayover visitors, including 1.2 million from the U.S.

Cuba, a CTO member, had 2.8 million visitors.

The momentum continues, according to Jack Richards, president of Pleasant Holidays.

"The D.R. continues to be our best-seller, and Punta Cana in particular is off the charts," Richards said. "We're seeing double-digit growth there, and the Caribbean region as a whole is performing very well."

He attributed the booking boom in part to increases in airlift in many key destinations.

Richards' findings were echoed by Apple Vacations, as well.

"Our charter destinations of Punta Cana and Jamaica are pacing ahead of last year, and our scheduled air business to the Caribbean is up significantly from the same time last year," said John Tarkowski, Apple's vice president of planning and sales development.

John Hanratty, executive vice president and COO of Travel Impressions, also was optimistic.

"Business is up across the board, with almost every island experiencing double-digit growth," he said. "The D.R. and Jamaica continue to be strong. Aruba, which has been a bit soft, is coming back nicely in 2013. St. Lucia also is doing well.

"We remain extremely optimistic as business continues to be strong through Q2," he said.

Hoteliers Mark Durliat and Nikheel Advani, CEO and COO, respectively, of Grace Bay Resorts in Turks and Caicos, reported bookings ahead of a year ago at this time.

"Turks is having a good year," Advani said. "Airlift is improving, and the private sector has formed a committee to meet with the government on a plan for more lift, particularly from the Midwest and South America."

Club Med is having a "very good year" in the Caribbean, according to Xavier Mufraggi, CEO for North America.

"Although we've seen the impact due to the [increase in airfares] to the Dominican Republic, there continues to be growth there," he said.

Also strong are the bookings to the Club Med villages in Guadeloupe and Martinique. "We're very pleased with those numbers," Mufraggi said.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 
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