MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — The perennial call by hotel officials for an integrated regional marketing plan has become a staple of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association's (CHTA) annual Caribbean Marketplace. But this year, it coincided with upbeat reports from tourism ministers about visitor numbers for 2013, optimistic forecasts for 2014, an uptick in room upgrades and expansions and increased hotel revenue.
More than 1,200 delegates, including 320 buyers from 20 countries, met last week with 741 suppliers from 27 Caribbean countries at the Montego Bay Convention Center. This was the fourth time the event had been held in Jamaica.
"The attendance numbers are solid evidence that interest in the Caribbean region as a vacation destination venue not only remains strong but also continues to grow," said Richard Doumeng, CHTA president and managing director of Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas.
Recent data from Smith Travel Research (STR) supported Doumeng's claim.
The Caribbean hotel industry reported increases in all three performance metrics year to date through November.
The Caribbean rose 2% in occupancy, to 67.2%, in 2013 over 2012; the average daily rate (ADR) was up 5.2%, to $180.50, and revenue per available room (RevPAR) jumped 7.3%, to $121.26, the highest occupancy, ADR and RevPAR recorded since 2008, according to STR.
Although final 2013 figures for the Caribbean have not been tallied, the leaders appear to be the Dominican Republic, with close to 4 million stay-over visitors, a 1.4% increase; Jamaica, 1.6 million, up 1.7%; and St. Maarten, with more than 350,000 visitors, up 1.3%.
Doumeng told delegates, "Cooperation between the public and private sectors is so important, especially in a time of decreasing budgets for all of us. We are stronger together as a region than any one country standing on its own."
CaribbeanTravel.com was launched last year as a destination and lodging portal and information platform with the tagline "Life needs the Caribbean," but the site is "not as robust as we would like it to be," Doumeng said.
"I maintain that the Caribbean remains the world's largest unknown brand, and we have work to do to generate awareness of our website as a valuable tool for consumers and agents in planning Caribbean vacation," he said.
He said that once visitors do come to the Caribbean, "then we can be competitors and worry about which islands they are going to. We are not competing with each other anymore. … We are competing with the rest of the world."
Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, the conference's keynote speaker, referenced regional growth in calling for stronger ties between tourism and other sectors in the region.
"It's been a year of continued growth in cruise and air sectors for much of the region," Simpson-Miller said. "But we need to boost our marketing efforts, ease travel for residents and visitors, initiate training programs for our frontline workers to enhance customer service and increase room stock."
Simpson-Miller, a former tourism minister, warned delegates that to compete effectively as a tourist destination, "tourism policies must be innovative and the strategies must embrace concepts of sustainability."
Noting that most Caribbean destinations offer sun, sea, sand and land, she said, "Our vision is too narrow because it does not accept that we must compete for primacy of the complete product."
Simpson-Miller offered examples from Jamaica's Master Tourism Plan that she said could successfully be applied within the region, such as linkages forged between tourism and entertainment, with additional links focused on agriculture and manufacturing.
"There is tremendous potential within our region to supply the tourism sector's collective needs," the prime minister said.
"Forging firmer linkages between our productive sectors can only benefit all of us," she said. "I recognize that our region's performance in tourism is one we can all be proud of. It has enormous potential for growth."
Jamaica Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Wykeham McNeill acknowledged that 2013 "had its challenges, but there is reason for optimism this year."
He cited increased arrivals for several destinations, new and expanded hotel inventory — Jamaica alone added 840 new rooms — and pointed out that tourism continues to gain prominence throughout the region.
"In the minds of many consumers, the Caribbean and tourism are synonymous," McNeill said. "We must continue to capitalize and market this."
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.