The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) reported that the region welcomed a record 26.3 million stayover visitors in 2014, a 5.2% increase over the 25 million who visited the Caribbean in 2013. That was well above the projected 2% to 3% increase forecasted early last year.

Cruise passenger arrivals totaled 23.9 million, up 8% over 2013.

All told, those visitors spent $29.5 billion in the region, up 5% over 2013, or nearly $1.5 billion more in 2014 than in the previous year.

Looking forward, the CTO said it expected that visitor spend would rise 4% "at a minimum" in 2015.

The U.S. continued to be the region's dominant source market, accounting for nearly half of all visitors.

"Last year, the Caribbean tourism industry was the strongest on record," said CTO Chairman Richard Sealy. Its growth increase of 5.3% outpaced the average global growth rate of 4.7%."

Sealy added: "We're moving out of the abyss of the distant past and moving onto a plane of improvement in the not-too-distant future."

He cautioned, however, that despite the improved statistics, "We aren't where we need to be yet, but we are maintaining a position of prominence."

Hugh Riley, CTO's secretary general, attributed the record growth to a strong year for air travel, airport improvements, an increase in flights and seat capacity, a positive performance by the accommodations sector, solid growth in cruise visits and a faster-than-expected rise in stayover arrivals.

"Our traditional markets performed well," Riley said. "Canada, which was flat in 2013, rallied strongly last year. The U.S. maintained healthy growth, and Europe topped 5 million visitors for the first time since 2008."

Yet, despite all the growth, he said, the region was "still not back to prerecession levels."

Even so, Riley pointed out that the region had seen growth in a year in which the global economy recorded only moderate increases, an indication that Caribbean holidays still are in demand.

In order to build upon the visitor and spending records set in 2014, Riley called again for a coordinated strategy to promote the Caribbean, a reference to the joint efforts of both the CTO and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association to implement a regionwide marketing campaign.

In a breakdown of visitor and cruise numbers, several trends emerged, according to Winfield Griffith, the CTO's director of research.

• The economies of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have gone from "galloping at double-digit speed to trotting," Griffith said, adding, "There's no recording of significant incremental business from them last year."

• Of the 24 destinations reporting cruise data, 21 achieved increases, 14 of which were in double digits.

With the expansion in cruise business to Belize, Cayman Islands, Cozumel, Jamaica and Turks and Caicos, the Western Caribbean now is the largest subregion for cruise arrivals, having displaced the Eastern Caribbean, according to Griffith.

• Still, cruise capacity throughout the region will decline as ships again are repositioned away from the Caribbean.

"No significant growth in cruise passenger arrivals is expected this year," Griffith said.

• Room stock expanded marginally by 0.8%; the overall occupancy rate moved to 68% from 67.1%; and revenue per available room was $132.28, up 5.7%, according to data from STR.

• As relations between the U.S. and Cuba begin to thaw, the CTO plans to promote multidestination travel to ease the potential impact on other islands.

CTO officials also called for hassle-free travel throughout the region to maintain interest and withstand competition from other global markets.

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