Although summer travel may be trending upward in the U.S., that does not appear to be the case across the board in the Caribbean region.
While summer traditionally is a slower travel season in the islands — high season generally runs from mid-December through April — the word this summer is that the travel outlook is flat, about the same as 2011.
Last summer wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t any great shakes, with some exceptions. And that’s true this year.
A recent survey from KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory firm, concluded that there will be no meaningful growth in the Caribbean tourism market until 2014 at the earliest, and the biggest challenge for the tourist sector this year is the “delicate and fragile” economic recovery.
“While there are some signs that the tide may be turning, a recovery in visitor arrivals will take time to translate into a recovery for residential and mixed-use projects in the region,” the survey stated. “Those hoping for a quick recovery will be disappointed and will have to be patient.”
However, there is some good news. A number of hoteliers and destinations are coming off a positive first quarter, which saw modest rate gains and increases in occupancy and stayover arrivals as compared with Q1 2011.
Antigua, for one, posted an overall boost for the first three months, and in April it registered its highest hotel occupancies, 63.8%, since 2008, according to the Antigua Hotels and Tourist Association.
However, the gain still falls short of the 72.4% occupancy level registered in the pre-recession month of April 2008.
Air arrivals into St. Kitts rose 11.7% in the first quarter over Q1 last year, according to Ricky Skerritt, minister of tourism.
Arrivals from the gateways of Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte contributed to the higher numbers, he said.
“This positive trend in the airlift numbers would indicate that we can expect positive numbers to continue through the low season as the global market continues to recover,” Skerritt said.
Cruise arrivals helped boost Q1 results in some destinations, as well.
The Bahamas recorded 1.3 million cruise passengers, an 11% increase from January through March over the same period in 2011, and forecast at least 4.5 million cruise passengers this year, up from 4.2 million in 2011, according to Carla Stuart, director of cruise development at the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.
It’s an erratic picture, however, with peaks and valleys in visitor numbers and occupancies.
In the Bahamas Out Islands, high airline ticket prices and a still-sluggish economy are taking their toll on smaller resorts, such as Romora Bay Resort and Marina on Harbour Island, where occupancies are running at half of pre-recession levels, according to Anne Ward, client manager.
Over on New Providence island, home to Nassau, the 14 major hotels ran at an average of 84.3% occupancy in March, up from to 80.1% in March 2011, according to the Bahamas Hotel Association.
“We’re encouraged, but we are still constrained by international competitive pressure on room rates,” said Stuart Bowe, the association’s president. “We hope to see revenues return to prerecession levels soon.”
Atlantis on Paradise Island had a 6% rise in bookings in Q1 compared with the previous year.
Strong numbers expected at the resort over Memorial Day weekend buoyed optimism for the summer season, where the marketing focus will center on family packages and offerings.
Ladera, a luxury boutique resort on St. Lucia, had a strong first quarter, according to Olivier Bottois, vice president of marketing and operations.
“We’re small [26 suites and six villas] and we have a niche,” Bottois said. “We don’t go after or compete with the rest of the world or with big properties.”
Summer numbers “will be about the same as last year, which was a good year,” he said. “I’d love to see our occupancy figures jump by 50%, but I am not complaining.”
Ladera continues to focus on service and on improving the product.
While Puerto Rico’s Q1 occupancies stayed level with the same period last year at 76%, the average daily rate (ADR) rose 2.5%, and the revenue per available room (RevPAR) rose 2.4%.
That’s good news for hoteliers trying to capture higher room rates, but officials from the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. would not commit to a forecast going forward.
Earlier this year, the Jamaica government projected tourist arrivals to top 3.4 million this year (stayover, 2 million, and cruise passengers, 1.4 million), up from the 3.1 million total in 2011 (stayover, 2 million, and cruise passengers, 1.1 million).
Although U.S. stayover numbers declined by 1.4% in 2011, there was a surge from Latin America, which officials expect will result in continued growth from that market throughout this year.
Arrivals between December and April were “not brisk,” according to the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association, which reported a slight increase of 1.5% in stayover visitors.
Total arrival figures, including cruise traffic, have not been released, although John Lynch, director of tourism, anticipates favorable tourist numbers for the upcoming season, helped along by events, travel deals and packages to mark Jamaica’s 50th year of independence.
However, several resorts have reported a bang-up winter season and strong summer numbers.
“We had a terrific winter, and we are on target to surpass year over year, including this summer,” said Butch Stewart, chairman and founder of Sandals Resorts International.
His resort chain spans 16 properties on five islands.
Stewart attributed this momentum to a buildup of consumer confidence on traveling and spending as well as lessons learned on shopping for value.
“This sluggish economy has taught consumers to be smart and to shop for the best value in the marketplace, not the cheapest, but the place where their bucks will go the furthest for the experience that they believe they have earned,” Stewart said.
Forecasting arrival numbers is difficult, given the unpredictable nature of the economy and its impact on consumer behavior, according to Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“We expect a challenge with cruise arrivals this summer, but we believe that overnight arrivals will net out positively by year’s end,” she said.
Aggressive marketing, especially in key need-periods such as summer, continues to be the focus.
To that end, the destination launched a Sizzlin’ Sampler package that offers $350 in savings and invested $1 million in an advertising and marketing campaign to support the offer.
The USVI is working closely with Brand USA to ensure the destination is well represented in its international ad campaign “so that we benefit from its destination marketing tools and resources,” Nicholson-Doty said.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.