GraceBayBeach-TurksandCaicosWhat does the winter season hold for the Caribbean region? Depends on whom you ask.

It hasn’t been a cakewalk this year for hotels in the Caribbean, still digging out from the recession.

Despite a fairly decent season last winter and value-adds and promotions that continue into this coming peak season, occupancies at many properties sagged again during the summer.

Stayover visitor numbers were all over the place, reflecting variations in destination marketing strategies and the aggressiveness of rate discounting, coupled with high-energy prices, unemployment and the state of 401(k) accounts in key U.S. markets.

Cruise numbers thus far this year have fared better for some destinations (St. Kitts, Jamaica, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Bahamas, Aruba, Antigua) but not so well for others (Grand Cayman, the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia).

So, how does the winter season look?

“The forecast is positive,” said Josef Forstmayr, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

“The industry recorded growth over the past 10 months, but profitability still has not reached the levels of 2007-08,” he said.

He added that “there will be more programs, packages and better rates” next year and in 2013.

As an example, he pointed to the 48% increase in registration numbers for the Caribbean Marketplace taking place at Atlantis in January.

“Those who attend Marketplace know that the business conducted there will shape bookings for 2012 and into 2013,” he said.

Additional potential gold mines for inbound growth are the emerging markets in Central and South America, India and China. Forstmayr pointed out that many Caribbean countries are aggressively pursuing new or expanded airlift from these regions as well as reviewing visa requirements and “other potential inhibitors.”

Among the destinations reporting solid advance bookings for the winter were the Turks and Caicos. Ralph Higgs, director of tourism for the island nation, credits expanded airlift and a hotel product studded with luxury resorts.

JosefForstmayrStayover numbers through midyear showed a 15% jump over the same period in 2010; cruise numbers reflected a growth of 18% to 20%, but keeping the destination top of mind remains a challenge.

“We have some great resorts and attractions, but our strategy must be focused and our message targeted to get heads into beds this winter,” Higgs said.

Sandals Resorts is “looking forward to a terrific winter,” according to Butch Stewart, chairman and founder. “Bookings are on par or better than last year for Sandals and Beaches resorts, and what’s driving this is value.

“Customers want to be certain that the experience they envision is the vacation they enjoy, and we’re making that happen with renovation debuts across the board,” he said.

Sandals Grand Riviera in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, sports a new $60 million beach club, pool, villas, restaurants and Red Lane Spa; the Manor House at Sandals Royal Bahamian in Nassau is getting a royal makeover; and Sandals Emerald Bay on Great Exuma, Bahamas, completed a $1 million golf course renovation.

Jamaica is on course for a strong winter season, according to Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett.

Visitor arrivals have increased 5.7% over 2010 year to date, cruise arrivals were up 13.9% through July, and tourism generated $1.48 billion in revenue through August, up 3.4% over the same period in 2010, Bartlett said.

“We continue to develop our infrastructure and tourism product to ensure we maintain an edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace,” Bartlett said.
The Dominican Republic is on pace to welcome “a record number of visitors this year,” said Magaly Toribio, vice minister of international marketing and promotion for the Ministry of Tourism.

Stayover arrivals last year totalled more than 4.1 million, with the U.S. and European markets setting the pace.

Through October, visitor numbers were up 4% over the same period in 2010, and the destination expects to top out the year with a 5% overall increase, according to Toribio.

Reports from the Bahamas indicate that “people are traveling again and are willing to spend on memorable experiences,” according to the Ministry of Tourism.

Arrival numbers through July totaled 2.7 million, and the ministry forecasts an increase of 5.1% by year’s end over 2010’s record-breaking 5 million visitors.

High-season incentives, such as $400 savings for six-night stays, as well as promotional fares to Grand Bahama Island on Vision Airlines are expected to boost advance bookings for 2012, the ministry said.

Despite a tough economy, Divi Resorts Group (10 resorts on five islands) reported revenue growth this year, thanks to high repeat-guest factors and recent upgrades to several resorts, including the addition of 200 suites in four new towers at the Divi Aruba Phoenix and the conversion of the Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort on St. Croix to an all-inclusive.

“That change, which occurred last winter, prompted an increase in bookings that held in 2011 and looks positive going into 2012,” said E. J. Schanfarber, CEO and president.

The 2012 season also looks bright for Anguilla, said Eustace Guishard, chairman of the Anguilla Tourist Board.

“Many properties are reporting solid bookings from November straight through February and beyond,” Guishard said.

Beverly Nicholson-Doty, U.S. Virgin Islands commissioner of tourism, said JetBlue’s new flights out of San Juan to St. Thomas and St. Croix and the resumption of its seasonal service from Boston to St. Thomas, along with a $45 million redo of Marriott’s Frenchman’s Reef, “show great promise for a solid winter season.”

Curacao has registered the greatest percentage growth in U.S. arrivals (30% year to date) of any Caribbean island, according to Andre Rojer, marketing manager for North America.

“Curacao is an island on the rise, with new attractions and updated hotel product,” Rojer said. “We anticipate a solid winter season.”


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