Although the number of visitors to the Caribbean in 2013 totaled 25.1 million, up 1.8% over 2012, it was a lot slower than the 4.9% rise in 2012, and the growth rate lagged well behind most other world regions.

However, numbers alone don't tell the whole story.

Digging deeper into the data contained in the Caribbean Tourism Organization's (CTO) Caribbean Tourism Review reveals some bright spots and some explanations for the slow overall growth pace.

The region's largest source market performed relatively well.

The U.S., which accounts for close to 50% of all visitors to the region, sent 12.3 million travelers to the Caribbean, a 2.9% increase over 2012.

Richard Doumeng"Lumping the region's visitor numbers under one statistical umbrella is not a fair indicator of how each destination did," said Richard Doumeng, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

Airlift or lack of it, air taxes, hotel inventory, crime and weak economic conditions which persist in key markets could all be contributing factors variously to the rise, fall or status quo of annual visitor numbers.

"Some destinations, like Aruba, Belize and the Cayman Islands, each posted increases well over 5%," he said. "The Dominican Republic's numbers bumped up only 2%, but that increase totaled more than 4.6 million visitors — numbers some islands can only ever dream of."

Aruba, for example, was up 8.3%, to 979,256 visitors, while neighboring Curacao was up 4.9%, to 440,000 visitors.

"Much of that growth is due in part to the 18% upsurge in travel from South America, particularly from Brazil and Venezuela," said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, CTO chairman.

The Dutch Caribbean Islands are the most popular destinations for South American visitors.

Doumeng cautioned that it's important to examine the reasons behind the data to determine a proper course of action.

Barbados beachThe number of visitors from Europe, for example, fell 3.7%, to 4.7 million. The CTO blamed low economic growth in Europe and the U.K.'s high departure tax for the decline.

"Our U.K.-dependent countries are having a hard time with the Air Passenger Duty [APD] tax in the U.K.," Nicholson-Doty said. "Demand for Caribbean vacations is particularly reduced in light of the APD."

Barbados, a U.K.-dependent destination, fell 5.5% in its 2013 totals.

The U.K.'s departure tax on economy-class travelers flying to the Caribbean is 83 British pounds (about $136) per ticket.

Canadian stay-over visitor numbers increased 0.7%, to 3.1 million, the lowest year-over-year growth from the Canadian market since 1997, according to the CTO.

"This performance reflected the fact that there was marginal growth in the number of Canadians (0.1%) undertaking international trips, excluding those to the neighboring U.S.," Nicholson-Doty said.

Top destinations for Canadians were Cuba, whose numbers were flat in 2013 at 2.5 million, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, whose numbers neared 2 million but were only up 0.7% from 2012.

Among individual destinations, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in addition to Barbados, each had visitor decreases exceeding 5%.

Intra-Caribbean travel increased 2.1% last year, with 1.6 million Caribbean nationals traveling between islands for touristic purposes.

"If we could live long enough to figure out profitable, affordable and dependable air travel within the region, that would be such a blessing," Doumeng said. "We should have ease-of-travel and ease-of-visa regulations to make it easier for Caribbeans to hang out with each another."

Caribbean cruise visitors increased 2.7%, to 21.9 million, in 2013. Curacao (41.4%) and Aruba (25.4%) saw big gains, while Barbados was up 11% and Puerto Rico's numbers rose 8.9%.

Beverly Nicholson-DotyThe Bahamas, the Caribbean's most popular cruise destination, reported a 6.1% increase in cruise visitors, to 4.1 million, and the U.S. Virgin Islands posted a 4.9% increase.

Destinations reporting decreases in cruise visitors included Jamaica (down 5.9%), the Cayman Islands (down 8.7%) and Bermuda (down 15.4%).

The CTO estimated that visitor expenditures totaled $28.1 million, a 2.3% increase from the prior year.

"That is the strongest indicator of our region's progress," Nicholson-Doty said.

Room revenue in the hotel sector rose 7.5% last year, and the average revenue per available room grew by $10, to $125.

Occupancy levels stood at 67%, directly in line with pre-downturn levels, according to the CTO.

Nicholson-Doty said the Caribbean "anticipates an improved performance overall in 2014." The CTO itself is forecasting a visitor increase of 2% to 3%.

"We continue to face challenges," she said. "And we have to fight to boost arrivals both from the traditional markets and new and improving markets. The figures suggest that South America has immense potential."

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 


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