Sector: Destinations

More than a year after hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked havoc on parts of the Caribbean, their impact lingers in the ongoing rebuilding of the worst-hit islands and the persistent perception that the entire region was decimated.

And just as the hurricanes didn't pingpong around to hit every island in the Caribbean, neither does the region have a singular narrative going into 2019. Some destinations have remained strong and grown during the past year, perhaps absorbing arrivals from storm-damaged areas. Others have seen brutal drops in visitation due to a lack of hotel inventory and other tourism infrastructure.

In the most recent report from the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), 15 of 24 destinations recorded growth in international arrivals in 2018, including Guyana (17.5%), Belize (16.2%) and St. Kitts and Nevis (11.8%). Meanwhile, St. Maarten, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Dominica reported visitation declines ranging from 35.5% to 69.3% year-over-year.

"The numbers illustrate that we're still in recovery mode," said Hugh Riley, the secretary general of the CTO. "The U.S. market in totality is down 12.7%. The good news is it's improving. The rate of decline is getting smaller."

Jack Ezon, managing partner and founder of Embark and former president of Ovation Vacations, said the Caribbean and Mexico used to make up approximately 30% of his annual sales, but that's dropped in recent years due to the one-two punch of the Zika virus and the hurricanes.

Heading into 2019, however, Ezon is already seeing a Caribbean rebound.

"St. Barts is pristine and new," he said. "There's no better time to go."

Gustavia Harbor on St. Barts.
Gustavia Harbor on St. Barts.

He added that sales have been picking up and "since Thanksgiving the floodgates opened. It's starting to look just as good if not better than two years ago."

Inevitably, after disasters of the natural, political or terrorist variety, there's a lag between the return of stability and the return of group tours, cruises and international visitors.

In Egypt, where arrivals fell following the Arab Spring, a 2015 terrorist attack on a Russian passenger jet on the Sinai Peninsula killed everyone onboard and resulted in a two-year suspension of direct flights between the two countries. In 2016, tourist arrivals dropped to 5.4 million, down 63% from the 2010 high, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

However, Egypt is on the upswing. In 2017, there were 8.3 million arrivals, and preliminary data suggests 2018 will also top the 8 million mark. According to Virtuoso, Egypt has been a booming destination among U.S. travelers, listed at No. 2 on the network's Hot List with 264% growth year over year.

Marriott will open the 36-story St. Regis Cairo in February, and after recording 200% growth in bookings in 2018, the Intrepid Group is adding more trips to the Middle Eastern nation in the year ahead.

"We're really excited that people are asking about it again," said Megan Bailey, director of sales and customer experience in North America for Intrepid Group. "People were scared of it for a while."

The company's top-growing destination over the past year is another perennially popular country returning to prominence: Turkey. In 2016, a series of terrorist attacks and a failed coup threw the Turkish tourism sector into crisis, with cruise ships suspending port visits, tour operators canceling itineraries and hotel occupancy plummeting. After welcoming more than 36 million foreign visitors in 2014 and 2015, arrivals dropped 30% in 2016.

But momentum has returned. Arrivals are expected to top 36 million for 2018, and the first terminal of Istanbul's new airport is slated to open fully by the end of the year. And cruise ships are returning, with Regent, Royal Caribbean and Celestyal all making stops in Turkey in 2019.

"We stopped selling Turkey for a time," Bailey said. "This year, it has been selling like crazy. We have 21 different itineraries to Turkey." A new Winter Discovery trip will bring visitors during offseason, and Intrepid has added shorter itineraries to cater to the U.S. market.

"Right now is the time to go," said Theresa Tyo, owner of Camelot Journeys, an affiliate of Virtuoso member Andavo Travel. "Pricing for Turkey is great. They're trying to lure people back, and that's the way you do it, by lowering the price. I believe 2019 will be good for them."

The downswings in Turkey and Egypt have also benefitted Morocco, where arrivals jumped 10% in 2017, including a 29% bump from the U.S., according to the country's Ministry of Tourism. For the first nine months of 2018, the most recent period for which data is available, 9.5 million tourists had traveled to Morocco, an 8% increase year over year.

Intrepid has 27 itineraries heading to Morocco in 2019, including new trips like a route from the Atlas Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

During Intrepid's Cyber Week sale, five of the top 10 bestselling trips were to the North African nation.

"When there were uprisings in Egypt and Turkey we saw a huge shift into Morocco," she said. "Now I think people are talking about it and telling their friends about it."

Word-of-mouth is helping drive recovery and growth all over the map.

"A natural disaster is also an image disaster, it's a messaging disaster, it's a marketing disaster," said the CTO's Riley, who nevertheless is optimistic about the year ahead.

"It's been a slow upward trend we believe will continue," he said. "We believe 2019 will get back into positive territory."

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