Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

The catastrophic hurricanes may have slowed down tourism's progress, but they sure did not stop it.

Stayover visitor arrivals topped a record 30.1 million in 2017, and visitor spend hit a record $37 billion, even as the region battled the effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as Hurricane Harvey, which lashed parts of the U.S., the Caribbean's primary market.

Cruise performance mirrored that of tourist arrivals, growing by 2.4% over 2016, to a milestone 27 million passengers.

"In short, despite the severe challenges of 2017, more visitors arrived in the Caribbean, and they spent more," said Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, during a video briefing at CTO headquarters in Barbados.

"But is that enough? Is our work now over?" Riley asked.

"Not by a long shot," he answered himself. "The Caribbean, with our highly competitive tourism product, has quite some distance to go in order to realize our full potential."

Riley acknowledged that rebuilding, developing and sustaining the infrastructure and image of the Caribbean is an immense task.

"Our first order of business as a region is to stop treating tourism as some sort of casual pursuit," he said. "Tourism is a serious business. It employs, directly and indirectly, 13.7% of the people in the Caribbean, and it contributes, in total, from 7% to over 80% of the GDP across the region."

Riley said that, while thankful for the results achieved in the region in 2017, "there are bigger celebrations occurring in the places that are stealing our market share."

He said that both CTO and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association are working with other industry partners to implement a plan and funding for a short-term Caribbean regional marketing campaign "to tell the world we are serious about using our God-given assets to put our region's economy in the position of strength where it belongs."

Alex Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group. joined the briefing on video from Apple's Philadelphia headquarters.

"Despite the headwinds, politics and perceptions, there was growth," he said, but he agreed with Riley that the work of the Caribbean was far from over.

"The perception that the hurricanes devastated most of the Caribbean affected us a little, especially in the incentive and wedding markets, although we're seeing 10% growth in the first half of 2018. The market is growing, which is good news for the region," Zozaya said.

"Perception is all that matters when it comes to driving business," he said. He credited travel agents with helping inform clients in the hurricanes' aftermath as to which islands were open for business and which were damaged.

He said that the 14.9 million visitors from the U.S.  last year, out of the 30.1 million total, "is a good number but does not realize the full potential of the U.S. market. We must do more to gain market share. There is a lot of room for growth from the U.S."

What will grow the U.S. market to the Caribbean are more point-to-point flights, lower fares and increased connectivity, according to Zozaya.

Riley agreed, adding that constant visibility in terms of promotions, campaigns and fam trips to keep the Caribbean in the forefront of travelers' minds when planning vacations is as important as "helping the consumer understand the geography of the region" in order to effectively market the Caribbean brand.

"Global economic conditions are expected to be favorable this year, which bodes well for tourism in the Caribbean. However, there are geopolitical tensions, the persistent threat of terrorist attacks and the risk of extreme weather events," he said.

Given all of these factors, "we are projecting that tourist arrivals will increase between 2% and 3% in 2018," Riley said.

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