Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

Key takeaways from the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association Marketplace conference I "attended":

Caribbean bookings are all over the place. Last-minute reservations account for the biggest group right now, although the December holiday Festive season is already shows signs of delivering comfort and joy.

Leisure travelers are lingering longer and luxury travelers are spending more.

The positive response to vaccination campaigns in many of the islands is exceeding initial expectations.

Lifting some of the cumbersome entry regulations for vaccinated travelers is proving a popular incentive for island-bound vacationers.

Health and safety protocols of destinations remain a top concern among U.S. travelers.

Good deals now on airfares and hotel rates will disappear quickly.

Outdoor activities are low-risk, and the Caribbean should prioritize them in marketing campaigns.

These findings were reported by analysts who track tourism and travel trends, by tourism ministries that keep a sharp eye on visitor arrivals and by hoteliers who count heads in beds.

The Marketplace conference was all virtual this year but designed in much the same way as the live event of past years. There was a tradeshow floor with supplier booths set up for 15-minute pre-scheduled appointments with buyers; a press room, a networking lounge; an auditorium; a library; and a wrap-up cocktail party starring mixologist Marv Cunningham from the Bahamas.

What was missing was the hubbub and chatter of friends greeting friends, handshakes and air kisses, deals being made and contracts signed, the exchange of business cards, the displays of craft vendors, the clatter of dishes at lunch and the clinking of glasses at the post-conference happy hour.

But despite the lack of mingling and mixing, throughout the hours of screen time, I heard some very positive news mixed with cautionary advice for viewers.

"Travel to the Caribbean region is skewing positive and should remain positive through the summer. The U.S. market is showing signs of recovery," said Olivier Ponti, vice president of ForwardKeys, a company that analyzes tourism and travel trends.

Pricing, pivots and positive thoughts

The data from Ponti and his fellow panelists reflected an upward curve in bookings to the tropics, although they forecast that higher fares were coming.

"There will be destinations where demand will drive higher prices," said Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics. "Raising prices is a response to demand."

May-Ling Chun, St .Maarten's director of tourism, said that consideration is being given to relaxing some of the entry requirements for vaccinated travelers.

"We're working on it," she said.

And vaccinations for residents is a top priority. Karen Whitt, president of the Turks and Caicos Hotel Association, said that 51% of the population of 17,000 had had their first vaccine dose by May 7. "We're aiming for 70% by July," she said.

There have also been pivots. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, in lieu of cruise ships calling in the U.S. Virgin Islands for more than a year, "we've marketed directly to the charter boat industry since March 2020  and it's worked well," said Alani Henneman-Todman representing the tourism department. "That sector responded and we've got many yacht charters booked through 2021."

Summing it up, Frank Comito, CHTA's former CEO and director general who is now serving as an advisor and consultant to the organization, said of the region as a whole, "We are all much better now than we were a year ago. Even brighter days lie ahead."

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