By most reckonings, there are 33 island destinations in the Caribbean, from Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, to tony, upscale St. Barts. They also include desolate Montserrat, lush Dominica and the forbidden -- for Americans, at least -- island of Cuba.
Yet it seems that, increasingly, people I speak with in the industry are expressing concern that the region is perceived as falling into a rut of homogeny. Others see its value proposition falling in proportion to the rise of regional airfares. Still others question its attractiveness as a cruise destination.
In last week's cover story, which featured a conversation among editors of consumer travel publications, the Caribbean was singled out for criticism.
Danielle Mattoon, then travel editor of the New York Times, felt the islands' marketing was out-of-step with today's focus on experiential travel. People want "the opportunity to be in a tropical setting and yet have access to something authentic," she said.
Similarly, Afar Editor in Chief Julia Cosgrove observed, "There's no sense of 'I should go to this island as opposed to that because I'm going to get this deeper cultural experience by connecting with people in one place vs. another.' The destinations need to respond."
National Geographic Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows added, "They've sort of sold themselves to a common denominator. I wouldn't say it's the lowest common denominator. ... I think they've burned out a whole bunch of consumers."
USA Today's Veronica Stoddart described the Caribbean as "a mixed bag. Some destinations are overdeveloped. Sadly, it tends to be where the cruise ships go."
As a cruise destination, the Caribbean presents a different set of issues. Last week, Royal Caribbean International announced that the Quantum of the Seas would sail from its Bayonne, N.J. homeport on seven-, eight-, 11- and 12-day Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries.
Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel International, said her clients would book the Quantum out of interest in the ship itself, but she believes that if the ship stays in the Caribbean, it'll be one-and-done. Her clients have already seen the ports numerous times.
I also had a conversation with a vacation packager who sells the Caribbean along with other sun-and-sand destinations.
"They're right," he said of the travel editors' criticisms. "The problem is in differentiation. When you're on the beach, the sand, sun and water are the same. Even though each island has its own musical heritage, reggae is all you hear. And the all-inclusive concept has become ubiquitous: You and I know the differences in details among the different brands, but to most consumers, an all-inclusive is an all-inclusive."
The all-inclusives also work against the notion of experiential travel and authenticity, he said: "It costs you something extra to leave the property and go out and explore. The tendency is to stay put."
Another representative of the same packager said cost had become a big factor. "It can be $3,000 more for a family to go to the Caribbean than to Mexico," he said. "It's airfare, but not just airfare. It's taxation issues and the cost of goods."
This all adds up to a wake-up call. In my experience, Caribbean culture is alive and well for those who take the time and trouble to look for it. And some all-inclusives and cruise lines do offer cultural excursions, though they might want to revisit whether those are as authentic as today's "experiential" traveler is seeking.
For many vacationers, the bottom line is cost. Airlines are not going to give up the capacity discipline that has led to higher fares (and profitability). Island governments can't change that, but they can re-examine taxation, duty regulations and possible air subsidies to bring overall costs down.
These are bitter pills. Tourism is supposed to enrich government coffers, not deplete them, but each island will have to carefully consider these investments.
It could also help if islands traded parochial concerns for a coordinated campaign to promote the region, one that would highlight diversity, cultural richness and value. The Caribbean Tourism Development Co. website is a step in the right direction, but clearly more needs to be done.
And, judging from the conversations I've had recently, it will take more than a consumer campaign. The trade's faith in the region is wavering.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.