Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

Exciting. Possessing a huge potential. Brilliant.

Those were just a few of the ways Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) executives described the 2019 outlook of the Caribbean hotel industry during last week's Caribbean Marketplace conference.

While the mood at last year's Marketplace reflected uncertainty regarding the pace of post-hurricane recovery in islands, this time around the show abounded with positive reports about growth and resurgence throughout the entire region.

I heard this message in conversations with hoteliers, tourism representatives and buyers attending the event at the Montego Bay Conference Center.

Jamaica's director of tourism, Donovan White, for example, reported that revenues from tourism pumped $3.2 billion into the country's coffers last year, reflecting an 8.6% growth over 2017.

"This was the first year that revenue growth outpaced the rate of arrivals growth," White said.

Jamaica's visitors totaled 4.3 million in 2018, up 5%.

The country's 2019 outlook projects a 5.1 million visitor count coupled with a hotel construction pipeline that will boost the current 30,000 room count by an additional 1,200 rooms in the next two years, to a total of 7,500 rooms in five years.

"That room-count increase, along with a substantial airlift jump, planned infrastructure improvements on roadways, expansion at Sangster airport in Montego Bay, new partnerships and a new marketing campaign point to our awareness and our strategic approach to tourism as an economic driver," said Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica's minister of tourism.

Stacy Cox, CEO of the Turks and Caicos Tourism Association, reported a "solid year for our hotel members in 2018 who project an equally strong year this year. Wholesalers in particular remain very positive about our tourism product."

To be sure, the pace of recovery and growth has not been uniform throughout all of the storm-torn islands due to delays in insurance payouts for hotels, airports and businesses; airlift capacity not yet back to pre-hurricane numbers; and lag time in the arrival of construction materials.

But representatives from impacted islands that I spoke with at the Marketplace projected confidence and optimism.

Stephen Wright, general manager of the Grand Case Beach Club in St. Martin, a resort on an island especially hard hit by hurricane Irma, touted the pace of rebuilding with 50 of his 75 rooms back in inventory and the rest to follow by the end of the year.

"We're booked solid this winter with 50% of our business from repeat guests and 50% from first-time guests," Wright said.

"It's been illuminating to welcome new guests and heartwarming to see old friends back with us, many of whom supported us by returning even during our ongoing construction repairs," Wright said.

Rhodni Skelton, deputy director of tourism for the British Virgin Islands, described the destination as making considerable progress in recovery.

"We've got about 1,000 rooms now in inventory plus over 4,000 berths on charter yachts," he said. "By the 2019/2020 season, we expect Rosewood Little Dix Bay Resort and Biras Creek to reopen, and Bitter End Yacht Club expects to reopen its marina and restaurant this year and make noteworthy strides in rebuilding the accommodations."

He added: "While some of our larger properties have yet to reopen, we are positive that when they do, we will have a revitalized accommodation product that is even more attractive and robust."

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, 65% of accommodations are back on line, including 1,050 on St. Thomas, 600 on St. Croix and 150 on St. John as well as 1,430 Airbnb listings and 900 villa units on the three islands, according to Joe Boschulte, the islands’ tourism commissioner designee.

Acknowledging there was still work to be done, Boschulte credited the infusion of "significant federal dollars" coupled with the resolve of local stakeholders with helping the territory to achieve its rebuilding objectives.

And Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, said that 2018 "exceeded expectations. Our resurgence from the storms continues to position Puerto Rico higher than ever as a viable tourism destination and experience."

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