Preview 2013: Caribbean/Mexico

By Gay Nagle Myers
Vista Mare SamanaBased on a number of positive factors and indicators in 2012, the Caribbean and Mexico have plenty of reasons to anticipate good fortune in the year ahead.

Although this year has not been without its bumps in the road, it was a far smoother ride than the 2008-2010 era and the global economic crisis.

Momentum began to build in 2011 and continued in 2012, and the picture looks bright for 2013.

While still fragile, tourism in the Caribbean in 2012 continued the bounceback that gained steam in 2011. Visitor figures topped out at 23.8 million in 2011, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO).

Although there is nothing shabby about that statistic, it was only 1% above 2010 numbers.

The 2012 forecast is for at least a 3% increase in visitors. Figures will not be available until Q1 2013.

Posing the question of where those extra travelers will come from, Philip Wolf, founder of PhoCusWright, told attendees at the CTO's State of the Industry conference last June, "You'll have to steal [them] from someplace else. The Caribbean wants to stimulate inbound arrivals. Today's travelers want authentic experiences. Tourism destinations, marketers and hotels must dig down deeper to offer what travelers are looking for."

South of the border, Mexico's overall visitor numbers appear on track to break 2011 records, and hotel inventory continues to grow at a brisk pace, an indicator of renewed confidence on the part of investors and developers.

A strong economy, coupled with U.S. State Department travel warnings that, while specific, do not target the resort areas or colonial cities, are slowly eroding the perception that Mexico is unsafe to visit.

Hurdles ahead

In the Caribbean, even as the market upswings take place and take hold, the region continues to wrestle with some pretty big issues and distractions.

While demand for the region is healthy, airlift and air access, implementation of a regional marketing plan, visa regulations, red tape and delays in permits and approval for hotel construction and accommodations and departure taxes all continue to plague its tourism industry.

Preview 2013"If travelers can't get here easily, at a decent price and in less than a day of travel, they will go somewhere else," said George Vincent, Grenada's tourism director.

Vincent was referring specifically to his own island, but his argument holds true for any island with limited access and lift.

As for investors in the region, Vincent pointed out that the Caribbean competes with many other markets. "Investors have lots of places to go where it is investor-friendly. The Caribbean needs to improve its welcome mat for investors."

Operators and hoteliers reported growth in 2012, although last winter "wasn't as buoyant as we had hoped," according to one hotelier.

The warm weather in the U.S. last winter waylaid some travel plans to the tropics. "It just wasn't cold enough in the U.S. to be uncomfortable," he said.

The first half of the year indicated a positive upswing for several of the larger destinations, including Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten and Aruba.

However, some of the smaller islands did well for their size and their tourism numbers in the first half of 2012. This included places such as Curacao, Martinique, St. Kitts and even Statia, which welcomed several hundred more visitors from January through June 2012 than in the same period in 2011.

Don't forget Cuba: Packages offered by tour operators licensed to sell authorized people-to-people programs have generated a ton of interest and bookings since President Obama reopened the programs in 2011.

Although summer travel flattened and hurricane threats derailed travel to the Caribbean again in the fall, the winter picture this season is fairly robust.

Expanding ambitions

Caribbean tourist boards and hoteliers are thinking way outside the box these days in terms of diversifying their markets to attract potential visitors and guests.

While the U.S. remains the key bread-and-butter market for many of the destinations, most continue the push into new source markets, a trend that has grown in the past two years. They are venturing much farther afield in their quest to put butts in airplane seats and heads in hotel beds and gain a bigger slice of the pie.

Jamaica recently closed a lucrative deal with a Russian carrier to bring weekly planeloads of snow-weary Russians to its sun and sand from January through March.

Despite the oppressive Airline Passenger Duty on flights from the U.K. to the Caribbean, the Britain-Jamaica market has shown surprising growth, according to John Lynch, Jamaica's director of tourism.

Jamaica's impressive showing at the London Olympics and the "Bolt Bounce" from gold medal winner Usain Bolt are key contributing factors to growth from the British market, Lynch said.

Another strong market, not only for Jamaica but for several other islands, continues to be Latin America.

Other trends: Operators report that group demand is slowly coming back; luxury travel is up; weddings, renewal ceremonies and generational travel now are offered by most properties, from the Bahamas in the north to Bonaire in the south; and vacation and villa rentals boost occupancies in all seasons.

Mexico has had a good year, rebounding after the knockout punches of the global economic crisis, swine flu outbreaks and security challenges over the past several years.

Hotel occupancies indicate 18 months of continuous growth, according to the Datur System, which tracks 70 major tourist destinations in Mexico.

Of the 124 hotels totaling 19,318 rooms currently in the construction pipeline in Mexico and the Caribbean, Mexico leads the way with 2,627 rooms, according to Smith Travel Research.

In the Caribbean, the Bahamas leads the way in hotel construction, followed by the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

With a new administration taking the reins in Mexico, it remains to be seen how important a role tourism will play in the country's economic picture.

The previous administration, through the Mexico Tourism Board, set a high bar in terms of promotion, marketing and the development of strategies and initiatives, including the Mundo Maya (Mayan World) program; the Magic Towns and 10 Routes of Mexico programs, which focus on the colonial cities and history; and the 18 Gastronomic Routes, which builds awareness of Mexico's cuisine.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 
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