Good news highlighted the events surrounding Caribbean Week in New York last week, an annual event (now in its 43rd year) sponsored by the Caribbean Tourist Organization.
First-quarter arrival numbers to the Caribbean region jumped 7.3%, to 8.5 million visitors. Tourist arrivals are expected to surpass the 30 million mark for the first time this year, following a record 28.7 million arrivals in 2015, according to CTO chairman Richard Sealy.
“This performance was buttressed by lower oil prices and the strong U.S. dollar, which increased the appeal of the region to potential visitors," Sealy said. "The many air service agreements ensured that the region had adequate seats to facilitate the flow of travelers to and within the region."
Several carriers, including Delta, JetBlue and United, have expanded their Caribbean routes from U.S. gateways to the region within the past year.
Although visitor numbers were not available for specific destinations, 19 destinations showed improvements on their Q1 2015 numbers, with eight registering double-digit growth between 10.5% and 26.8%.
Intra-regional trips rose 12.9% in Q1; the European market registered 11% growth. “Canada still has its challenges with a struggling economy and currency issues,” Sealy said.
He called Cuba's reintroduction onto the Caribbean scene a positive development for the entire region.
“Cuba wants to be marketed as part of the Caribbean brand," he said. "It has been a CTO member for years and now is a major player in Caribbean tourism. The destination showcases the diversity of the region and we look forward to intra-island programs with Cuba and other islands."
Sealy, who also serves as minister of tourism and international transport for Barbados, pointed out that there is more work to be done to keep visitors occupied while in the Caribbean. “Having gotten visitors into the region, we have to have things for them to do, and we are working feverishly with our members to come up with new activities for them as well as ways to diversify source markets,” he said.
Karolin Troubetzkoy, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA); Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Association (CTO), and Richard Sealy, CTO chairman address the media during CTO’s Caribbean Week event in New York last week.
Earlier this year, the visitor picture was not so bright, as sluggish tourist numbers reflected a mild winter in the U.S. and concerns as news of the Zika virus began to make headlines.
Regarding Zika, there was a slight dip in hotel occupancy in Q1, likely due to Zika fears.
Karolin Troubetzkoy, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, said that the impact had been felt in the wedding groups and babymooners market.
“It is really very different from hotel to hotel, island to island, and I think there are still markets that are not concerned about the Zika virus,” she said.
“Also evidence from past years has shown that bookings are impacted when there is a presidential election or Olympic Games," she said. "It's incorrect to attribute occupancy declines to one factor."
Zika is being monitored closely by CHTA and CTO, both of which are working with the Caribbean Public Health Agency to educate residents, visitors and travel planners on preventing the spread of Zika.
Sealy added that some CTO member countries have not yet reported a single case. “We have some, most from the single digit numbers. It is not an epidemic in the Caribbean as far as we can see, but it is something we are very conscious of and working hard to educate everyone on prevention," he said.
"There are people who come to the region for the very reason that they are convinced that our infrastructure, as far as health is concerned, is strong.
"I don't think we should underestimate the impact of Airbnb and other home-stay programs," he said. "We are seeing increased arrivals, but many visitors are opting to go for these non-traditional accommodations."
On the lighter side, Caribbean Week also included culinary demonstrations by island chefs in retail locations around New York, such as Bloomingdale's and Williams Sonoma; a wedding-themed workshop showcasing romantic getaways; a Rum and Rhythm event with music, food and plenty of rum; the lighting of the Empire State Building in the colors of Caribbean; and a Caribbean rock concert at the B. B. King Blues Club.