Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

The 2016 visitor numbers and data released last week by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) reveal both the tourism industry's challenges and the triumphs in the region.

Tourist arrivals increased by 4.2% in 2016, better than the 3.9% increase globally. And Hugh Riley, the CTO's secretary general, said that the increase was registered "despite political uncertainties, security and economic challenges in our main source markets."

Visitor expenditure also hit a new high; it was estimated it had grown 3.5% in 2016, to reach $35.5 billion.

Regarding the outlook for 2017, the CTO expects growth to continue this year, although at a slower rate, between 2.5% and 3.5% in long-stay arrivals (i.e. visitors with stays of more than one night) and between 1.5% and 2.5% in cruise passenger arrivals.

"Uncertainty over the new government in the U.S. could dampen the expansion rate," Riley said.

"It's a bit unpredictable, and a lot of factors could change the outlook," he said. "We are monitoring this, paying close attention to it, and although there is no sign yet of a Trump impact, clearly it's something we're watching."

The U.S. continued to be the top source market for the Caribbean. But it recorded an 11% jump in visitors from the U.K. and Europe despite terrorist attacks in some countries, the Brexit referendum and bumpy economic outcomes across the continent, according to Riley.

Intra-Caribbean travel performed well despite fragmented air service within the islands; it was up 3.6%, which represented the second consecutive year of growth in this sector.

However, the news from Canada, normally a robust market for the Caribbean, was not so bright: In the first decrease since 1994, arrivals dropped 3.4%, to 3.3 million. Riley described it as "uncharacteristically feeble."

The weak Canadian dollar and a sluggish first half economic output contributed to the decline, according to Riley.
While some islands posted robust increases, tourist arrivals showed uneven growth. Of the 28 destinations reporting data for varying periods last year, 22 had increases that ranged from modest to robust (17.5% in the Turks and Caicos, for example).

Factors contributing to the increases included greater air access and significant investments to enhance airport development and hotel product.

Overall, the hotel sector suffered some setbacks.

"All hotel indicators were down, with the exception of the number of available rooms, which grew by just over 1%," Riley said, citing STR data.

He acknowledged that the sharing economy factor had an effect on the accommodations sector last year.

"Companies like Airbnb and HomeAway offer opportunities for Caribbean travelers to stay where we live, eat where we eat and lime [chill out] where we lime, but this affects the hotel sector," he said. "We're trying to get a grip on this and have signed a partnership with Airbnb to share data and research in this important area."

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