Caribbean tourism numbers spiraled upward in 2010, following a down year in 2009, and current predictions call for a 5% jump in 2011.
Arrival numbers are on the rise, hotels are slowly seeing revenue move in a positive direction, and more visitors will step off planes and cruise ships this year than last.
The Caribbean travel picture is looking a lot better now than a year ago, but the lingering effects of the global economic crisis, which translate to lower disposable income and lower visitor spending in each destination, temper the forecast going forward, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
"People want to travel, and the Caribbean is a desirable location," said Hugh Riley, CTO secretary general. "The key is to make travel affordable and efficient for travelers and profitable for the carriers and cruise lines. It is a fine balancing act."
In its recent state-of-the-industry analysis, CTO revealed that total stay-over arrivals rose 4% in 2010, to 23.1 million visitors, up from 22.1 million in 2009. Cruise tourism also registered a 6% increase. (Click on the image at right for a larger view of cruise passenger arrivals numbers.)
U.S. visitors drove Caribbean growth in 2010, up 5.7%, to surpass the 2007 record of 11.8 million U.S. visitors. The CTO said 21 of the 26 reporting countries reported increases last year.
Big winners in the visitor numbers game appear to be the same players as a year earlier. The Dominican Republic hosted 4.1 million visitors, up 3.3% over 2009; Jamaica welcomed 1.9 million tourists, up 4.7%; Puerto Rico topped out at 1.5 million, up from 1.3 million in 2009; St. Lucia was up 9.9% overall, with 306,000 visitors; and the Bahamas registered a 5% jump.
Cuba's visitors numbered 2.5 million, up 4.2%, with Canada and Europe as its largest markets.
Many of the smaller countries registered impressive gains, given their baseline numbers for 2009. Anguilla, for example, had a 10% rise in the first six months of 2010 (final year-end figures were not available), and the Cayman Islands came in at 6% over 2009. (Click on the chart at right for a larger view of tourist arrivals to the Caribbean.)
Here's a partial breakdown:
• Dutch Caribbean countries (St. Maarten, Curacao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius, Aruba) reported no change from 2009 due to Curacao's 6% visitor drop in 2010 caused by falloff in South American business.
• Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries (Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexican Caribbean) were up 6%, due primarily to Cancun, Cozumel and Riviera Maya's double-digit growth, which regained much of the ground lost in the swine flu crisis in 2009.
• Hotel recovery is slow and still falling short of pre-2008 levels, despite the fact that 2010 average occupancies were up 3.1%, revenue per available room was up 4.3% and total room revenue was up 7.1%. Heavy discounting and room rate reductions over the past two years as hotels struggled to stay afloat contributed to the slow forward recovery, the CTO said.
• Increases in the U.K.'s Air Passenger Duty tax, coupled with weak European economies and high airfares, reduced U.K. visitor numbers to the Caribbean by 23% in the past three years.
"All indications are that the U.S. and Canadian markets will continue to perform well in terms of arrivals in 2011," said Ricky Skerritt, CTO chairman and minister of tourism for St. Kitts and Nevis.
Skerritt cautioned that travelers still are expected "to hold a tight purse in light of continued uncertainty in their home economies and globally."
Both Skerritt and Riley cited the need for integrated interregional air services, an issue that has dominated Caribbean agendas for years without much progress.
"The cost of air travel within the Caribbean pulls the whole region down" Skerritt said. "As chairman of CTO, I urge the debates to stop and constructive talk to begin so we can deal with issues affecting Caribbean air travel."