Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

With a strong performance during the last four months of 2018, including a robust turnaround by countries impacted by the 2017 hurricanes, the Caribbean welcomed 29.9 million visitors last year, its second-best year to date.

Statistics provided by the Caribbean Tourism Organization at a news conference beamed live from Barbados last week forecast a 6% to 7% growth in tourism arrivals in 2019, as damaged infrastructure in hurricane-impacted destinations returns to capacity.

However, 2018 was no cakewalk, making the total visitor count even more remarkable.

Numbers from the U.S., the main source market for the Caribbean, fell 6.3% last year, to 13.9 million tourist visits, due mainly to steep declines in arrivals in hurricane-impacted islands, including Puerto Rico, which was down 45.6% for the year and St. Maarten, down 79% over 2017 figures.

"However, even those destinations severely impacted by the 2017 storms, despite registering double-digit declines for the first eight months, experienced a significant turnaround during the last four months, posting triple-digit increases during this period," Skeete said.

An arrival surge of 28% from the U.S. in the last four months of the year boosted numbers, and the overall 9.8% growth from September through December led to a stronger-than-projected performance.

Hugh Riley, secretary general, attributed the robust performance from the U.S. to more airlift, with seat capacity rising by 5.3% and flight frequency up by 5.2%.

Several destinations did post year-over-year double-digit visitor increases, including Guyana, Belize, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Grenada.

Digging a bit deeper into the statistics revealed that total arrival numbers last year fell 2.3%, "although it was better than the 3% to 4% falloff we had anticipated," said Riley. 2017 still holds the record arrivals numbers of 30.6 million.

Visitor spending declined by 1%, to $38.3 billion, but tourists did spend a bit more per trip than they did in 2017 -- $1,177 versus $1,171.

Global growth in international trips increased by 5.6%, but the Caribbean market share of global visits was basically flat, at 2.1%. And Canada outperformed all other markets last year, posting a 5.7% growth, or 3.9 million visits, due to its strong economic performance and increased seat capacity to the region, according to Riley.

The cruise sector had its best performance ever last year: Cruise passenger visits reached 28.9 million, up 6.7% over 2017. Cruise arrivals are forecast to expand  4% to 5% this year, according to Ryan Skeete, acting director of research.

Riley warned of significant headwinds to navigate this year, including the continuing Brexit negotiations, the ongoing trade wars between the U.S. and China and potential extreme weather events.

However, with global demand for international travel expected to remain strong, along with healthy economic activity and improved air connectivity helping to boost arrivals, the outlook for Caribbean tourism in 2019 is strong and on the upswing, he said.

JetBlue's Scott Laurence, senior vice president of planning, concurred. "I'm very optimistic about this year," he said. "2017 was a challenging year for us, but the Caribbean travel market is very resilient. We are back to pre-storm airlift levels in Puerto Rico; we started new service from Fort Lauderdale to St. Maarten on Feb. 14; have Mint service from Boston and New York; began Newark service this year; and we are committed to this region."

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