Inside the Caribbean's Tourism Comeback

Travel Agent recently invited Caribbean tourism delegates to a roundtable discussion in New York to get firsthand status updates from the islands that were devastated by last year’s hurricane season, as well as the ones that were unaffected.

Participating in the discussion were Kim Jack-Riley, Antigua and Barbuda’s director of tourism for the USA; Cardigan Connor, parliamentary secretary for Anguilla’s tourism sector; Petra Roach, U.S. director of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc.; Celia Ross-Latham, director of sales for the St. Vincent and The Grenadines Tourism Office; Victoria Isley, chief sales and marketing officer at Bermuda Tourism Authority; Perla George, business development director for North America at the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board; Mikala Moss, area manager for New York for the Bahamas Tourist Office; Christine Noel-Horsford, director of sales and marketing for the Grenada Tourism Authority and Sylma Brown, director for the U.S. for the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Ruthanne Terrero and Joe Pike of Travel Agent magazine moderated the conversation. 

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Here’s what we learned.

Sylma Brown, Caribbean Tourism Organization; Cardigan Connor, parliamentary secretary for Anguilla’s tourism sector; Chris Coon, Travel Agent magazine and Perla George, business development director for North America at the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board

Anguilla

Cardigan Connor, parliamentary secretary for Anguilla’s tourism sector, tells Travel Agent that although Anguilla was one of the islands to feel the brunt of Hurricane Irma, the destination is in a great position to rebound quickly. 

“My island got hit quite hard. The numbers on the books were higher than they’ve ever been, so we looked forward to the start of the tourist season, which is normally in November,” says Connor. “But, again, we were hit by storms in the past, but the quality of Anguilla, or Anguillans, is that there’s no point looking back. We look forward. We got back on stream pretty quickly. We had electricity before Christmas, which was a huge bonus, because it
was believed that it wouldn’t be available until March.”

As far as new products go, Connor pointed to the new Quintessence “Q” Hotel Anguilla and the rebranded Belmond Cap Juluca as two properties that will create a buzz around Anguilla tourism. Belmond Cap Juluca is now taking bookings and will welcome guests starting November 17. Formerly just Cap Juluca, the hotel has 113 new guestrooms and suites — all with large private verandas or balconies.

Belmond had fortunate timing as it was already slated to close for renovations at the time of the hurricanes. Now, many of the accommodations offer large bathrooms that overlook walled botanical courtyards with a private seating area. The three- and five-bedroom private villas have kitchens, large dining areas and private pools.

“Belmond was a blessing in disguise, and I think they were really fortunate because they planned to shut down anyway, do some renovations and some additions, and to reopen for November,” says Connor. 

The Q Hotel is the first new hotel to open on Anguilla since the devastation of Hurricane Irma. It offers nine individual suites, villas and penthouses — equipped with Hastens beds, serviced by 24/7 personal butlers — and the mansion is available for a full buyout (accommodating 22 guests). 

“Our Quintessence is a new, five-star, nine room, luxury hotel that I think everyone will be proud of,” says Connor. “In fact, the owner of the Quintessence is a gentleman named Geoffrey Fieger. He’s been coming to Anguilla for 35 years, and when we have people like that, dedicated to the island, it tells us that our future looks pretty good.”

Also, the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Anguilla officially reopened on March 23 following months of restoration due to the impact of Hurricane Irma. Since the resort opened as the Viceroy Anguilla in 2010 and was converted to a Four Seasons in 2016, it has garnered much buzz amongst Millennial couples traveling with other couples, as well as Baby Boomers, for its intimacy and access to multiple beaches. 

Other properties currently open are the Zemi Beach House, the CeBlue Resort in Crocus Hill; Carimar Beach Club, Frangipani Beach Resort and Meads Bay Villas on Meads Bay; Shoal Bay Villas, Serenity Cottages and Fountain Residences on Shoal Bay; and Paradise Cove Beach Resort in The Cove. 

Belmond Cap Juluca is expected to create a buzz for Anguilla when it opens in November.

The Island’s Biggest Challenges: Although most hotels are coming back on line for the destination, Anguilla still faces the challenge of inadequate airlift, an obstacle Connor says the island has dealt with long before last year’s hurricane season.

“For us in Anguilla, we’ll be happy with one direct flight from anywhere to the mainland, but please don’t feel sorry for us. We manage,” he says. “Without a doubt, that is a main challenge. We’ve got beautiful beaches and the weather is generally quite nice, but it tells you that you’re still dependent on the islands around you.”

Antigua and Barbuda

While Antigua received only minimal damage from both hurricanes last year, its sister island, Barbuda, was perhaps the most devastated of the Caribbean islands, with Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, even announcing at the time that “Barbuda now is literally rubble.” 

But in the months that have passed since, Kim Jack-Riley, Antigua and Barbuda’s director of tourism for the USA, says the sadness from the hurricane has now morphed into an excitement for renewal.

And for Barbuda, that renewal is being championed by actor Robert De Niro, who planned to build a hotel on the island before the hurricanes set back the progress a bit. However, Colin C. James, CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority (ABTA), told media at the Caribbean Travel Marketplace back in January that De Niro’s planned hotel for Barbuda could be open as early as 2020.

“Nothing has changed from his plan,” James said at the time. “And the fact that someone with a proven track record is willing to stay with it says a lot about his confidence in the destination and his willingness to make it work.”

Back in June of last year, James told Travel Agent the hotel was about 14 months away from opening, which means it was scheduled to open about a year from when the hurricanes hit. However, James now tells us that only preparation work had begun on the new project.

Kim Jack-Riley, right, Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority

“The word hurricane is going to be a reoccurring theme, but what we are seeing after the hurricane is that there has been this renewal and new attitude toward tourism, so everyone is really excited,” says Jack-Riley. “I’m really feeling an excitement, that people want to put that behind us, and because they know that there are still great things to do and great things to see.”

As far as hot hotels on Antigua go, Jack-Riley says the island continues to increase its luxury products with the recent announcement that Rosewood will have a presence on the island in 2021. This comes as Jumby Bay, A Rosewood Resort revealed that it will be joining the Oekter Collection when it reopens on October 9. 

It was also announced toward the end of last year that Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Hilton’s luxury brand of landmark hotels, signed a management agreement with Callaloo Cay Antigua for the brand’s first new-build resort in the Caribbean — Waldorf Astoria Antigua. It is scheduled to open in 2020.

Also, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts has been appointed by Vancouver-based property development company, Replay Destinations, to manage Rosewood Half Moon Bay Antigua, which will open in 2021.   

“As a people, we’re humble, but we’re just now really embracing the fact that the word ‘luxury’ is not a dirty word, and luxury, in fact, doesn’t necessarily mean a reflection of monetary value,” says Jack-Riley. “It’s actually the value of an experience. It’s a luxury for most people to have three weeks to spare, a holiday. We are actually embracing the term ‘luxury,’ recognizing that we can provide a luxury experience that does not necessarily have to do with chandeliers and gold plates.”

The Islands’ Biggest Challenge: Like Anguilla, Jack-Riley tells Travel Agent, airlift is also an ongoing challenge for Antigua and Barbuda. While the destination has adequate airlift from New York, Miami and Atlanta, Jack-Riley says more airlift to the Mid-West and West Coast markets would increase Anguilla’s tourism arrivals significantly. 

“The pressing issue for Antigua and Barbuda continues to be airlift, so we are plodding along, trying to increase not only the frequency of flights, but it’s also where the flights are coming from,” says Jack-Riley. “I mean, right now we’re restricted to New York, Miami, New York, Miami. We do have, obviously, Atlanta, but we really would like to see a better way for visitors, for example, from the Chicago region, Midwest, to be able to connect, or even better, fly directly, as well as the West Coast, because we have so much interest from the West Coast. We really would like to have more airlift.”

The Bahamas

The Bahamas, which was one of the lucky Caribbean islands to avoid the impact of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria this past September, is currently in the middle of a luxury resort boom spearheaded by the much-anticipated opening of the Baha Mar resort.  

The $4.2 billion beachfront development has a total of 2,300 rooms and suites, in addition to an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature designed golf course. 

The resort also includes one of the largest casinos and the first flagship ESPA spa in the Caribbean. Baha Mar will encompass three brands: Grand Hyatt, which is open now; SLS, which opened in November; and Rosewood, which is expected to open in June. 

“The old elephant in the room is now open. Grand Hyatt opened in spring of last year,” says Mikala Moss, area manager for New York for the Bahamas Tourist Office. “The next thing still under development, ready to open soon, hopefully before the end of this year, is The Pointe, which is in downtown Nassau beside B. C. Hilton, and that is 150 rooms. Also, Margaritaville Beach Resort (slated to open in 2019) is putting together a water park, a spa, entertainment center, bowling alley and a movie complex. It’s almost a whole other Atlantis.”

The Islands’ Biggest Challenge: Moss tells Travel Agent the destination’s most pressing need has always been, and continues to be, informing the consumer that the Bahamas has way more to offer than just Nassau. 

“For the Bahamas, I guess, again, perception is the most pressing issue; the reminder that we are so much more than just Nassau,” she says. “The fact is that they all think Nassau’s such a big island when it’s really very small, so that is the biggest item on our agenda, constant education, constant reminder, because we know that in the market, what they see on TV tends to stick, and they do see a lot of Nassau on TV and not the others.”

Moss also says that, “[We need more] airlift into those other islands as well, making sure that it’s more accessible so that people don’t have to overnight,” says Moss. “While we do have a lot of airlift on the Eastern Seaboard, New York, Atlanta, Charlotte, throughout Florida, and all of that direct, we still need to have those seamless connections be a little bit more seamless, because – while some of the gateways like in Atlanta or Fort Lauderdale or Miami will go into some of the smaller islands – coming out of, say, New York, you can only get into Nassau.”

Perla George, British Virgin Islands Tourist Board; Mikala Moss, the Bahamas Tourist Office and Victoria Isley, Bermuda Tourism Authority

Barbados

Barbados was one of the fortunate islands that went untouched while Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma pummeled the rest of the region. In fact, Richard Sealy, minister of tourism and international transport for Barbados, recently announced that the island saw a 5 percent increase in stay-over arrivals last year, an all-time high for the destination.

“We actually had very good fortune in 2017, because we surpassed a 30-year record,” says Petra Roach, U.S. director of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. “So, the last time the largest number of American visitors into Barbados [occurred] was in 1987 and that was 175,093 visitors and we actually achieved 188,970 visitors this year. After 30 years, we beat the record. We’ve seen eventual growth year after year, and for the first month January, we’ve also seen 9 percent growth on that, so we expect that 2018 will finish quite positively as well.”

Of special note is the United States, which, while being the second-highest producer of business, grew by a whopping 11.7 percent over 2016.

The hotel developments Roach credits for Barbados’ recent success includes Sandals Royal Barbados, the island’s second Sandals property that debuted in December. The Sandals addition is of particular importance given the brand’s popularity among travel advisors, says Roach.

Additional refurbished properties include the Fairmont Royal Pavilion and Turtle Beach, and redevelopment projects include the Sea Breeze Beach House, Treasure Beach, The Waves Hotel & Spa and upgrades at the Barbados Hilton. Another huge tourism development on the island came recently with the opening of Nikki Beach Barbados.

The Island’s Biggest Challenge: For the islands that weren’t affected by the hurricane season, the immediate challenge is getting the message across to consumers that the entire Caribbean region was not decimated, as many in the public believe.

“I think communication is key in all these things, and whether it’s that journalists come down and do all these tourism projects or whether they come see all the progress that’s been made in terms of the redevelopment to rebuild, I think it’s very important that we keep spreading that message,” says Roach. “It’s Barbados, it’s Antigua, it’s Grenada, but ultimately we are the Caribbean, and until we get that message through, deeply ingrained in our brains, we’re going to make progress one foot forward and then go back three steps.”

Petra Roach, Barbados Tourism Authority

Bermuda

Bermuda, although located well north of Caribbean waters, was also fortunate in that it went unscathed during the hurricane season last year. But the island still took a bit of a tourism hit from a consumer base that thought the entire Caribbean region was destroyed, says Victoria Isley, chief sales and marketing officer at Bermuda Tourism Authority. But that dip didn’t last for long.

“We’re very fortunate to have been outside of the geographic area impacted by the hurricanes,” says Isley. “But because of some of the misreporting from media, we did have an impact in September. In fact, we’ve had seven quarters of increased visitation to Bermuda, so quite a comeback story for an island that has let tourism go by the wayside. We ended 2017, actually, with the largest number of recorded visitors in Bermuda’s history.”

As far as the hottest hotel news on the island, Isley points to the recently renovated Hamilton Princess & Beach Club. A recently completed $100 million, three-year renovation project has added luxury, contemporary features to the historic hotel.

“I think the Hamilton Princess, with their renovation that they went through last year, is a perfect example of [keeping the hotels on island up to date],” says Isley. “There are floor-to-ceiling windows, and it’s overlooking the pool, that’s overlooking the harbor, and it’s a real centerpiece of the experience. It’s also one that I think does a great job of blending locals with visitors, because there are locals that belong to that gym, so there’s a really a great mix there, that it’s not just visitors that are in that gym.”

The Island’s Biggest Challenge: Isley tells us that a pressing issue for Bermuda is sustained growth. Isley also says the destination would like to see spending by visitors spread throughout the entire island and instead of in concentrated areas. 

“For Bermuda, one of the issues that we’re looking at is sustained growth, so we’ve had the turnaround in terms of air arrivals to Bermuda, but we want to continue on that path, so sustained growth is one,” she says. “Second is also then distribution of experience and spend throughout the island, and that’s both from hotel visitors as well as cruise passengers. We have a dual message there. One of the things with the Bermuda Tourism Authority when we were privatized four years ago is we do have the sales and marketing component, but we do have product and an experienced team as well. We have a whole team that’s working with Bermudians in terms of getting reinvested in the tourism experience, and it’s really exciting to have young Bermudians and entrepreneurs be a part of that.” 

The British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) continues to recover from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria with the return of yacht charters, cruises and beachside bars and restaurants. According to a spokesperson for the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board, most properties on Anegada (Anegada Beach Club, Four Diamonds Park Villas, Anegada Reef Hotel) began welcoming back locals and guests within the last month or so. 

Perla George, business development director for North America at BVI Tourist Board, however, tells Travel Agent that most of the destination’s popular luxury resorts will not be available until 2019.

“I know by now you’re aware that the BVI was very, very heavily hit, especially on luxury properties, and we are saying 2019 and still don’t know if [that’s going to be] 2019, but we are positive because all the owners of those properties have committed that BVI is their home,” says George. “They’re not going anywhere. They’re here to stay.” But the island also has a plan to partially sustain its tourism arrival numbers. 

“For us, the BVI, the year started off as a recovery process,” she says. “As you know, we’ve all been hit. So first to come online was the sailing community. All our charter companies are back. They are open ... and so our new theme is, ‘We are sailing. We are still sailing.’”

As far as anticipated reopenings go, George tells Travel Agent that Sir Richard Branson’s private island, Necker Island, will be back on stream in October. Oil Nut Bay began welcoming guests in April, and Scrub Island is going to come back in July.

“Our repeat clientele has really shown why they love the BVI. They’re coming down to help us rebuild. They’re coming down to spend money in the destination,” says George. “So, we are grateful and thankful for that. That’s what we are talking about. BVI is still sailing and trying to start our focus with the travel trade on sailing. It’s a great market for them to tap into. That is our focus for this year.” 

Christine Noel-Horsford, Grenada Tourism Authority; Safrika O’Neal, British Virgin Islands Tourist Board; Celia Ross-Latham, St. Vincent and The Grenadines Tourism Office; Perla George, British Virgin Islands Tourist Board and Cardigan Connor, Anguilla government

Grenada

Grenada was also one of the islands that escaped any damage from last year’s hurricane season and is, in fact, thriving amongst Millennial travelers as the destination continues to roll out new hotels and refresh existing ones.

“For Grenada specifically, 2017 has been an amazing year,” says Christine Noel-Horsford, director of sales and marketing for the Grenada Tourism Authority. “We finished with an overall increase of 8 percent in visitor arrivals, and the U.S. recorded the highest growth within the Caribbean region. 

“We had a 16 percent growth in visitor arrivals, so that was just amazing for us. Also, the Canadian market has been doing very well for us. We had a 6 percent increase there, and the Caribbean in general, where we get a large percentage of our business as well, had an 8 percent increase. So, overall, the destination is really pacing well and based on the discussions we’ve had with the tour operators and airlines, during [the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace], 2018 is going to be a really good year for us. So, it seems as if Grenada is a hot spot.”

Carlson-Rezidor Hotel Group, parent company of the Radisson Hotel Corporation, announced that it is granting Issa Nicholas Limited the opportunity to be the first hotelier in the Caribbean to launch Radisson’s five-star brand, Radisson Blu, in Grenada.

The project will include the construction of multi-story residences, an additional swimming pool, spa facilities and family-friendly facilities, as well as a full refurbishment and expansion of all existing facilities. The launch is anticipated in 10 months, with the introduction of the residences and new spa facilities in 2020. The project is budgeted to cost roughly $50 million.

The all-inclusive Spice Island Beach Resort welcomed the new year with redesigned Anthurium Pool Suites, upgraded kitchen facilities and the addition of an open-air Yoga Pavilion overlooking Grand Anse Beach. Three certified yoga instructors, each trained in a different discipline, now offer private sessions in addition to scheduled classes focusing on Yin Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, Gentle Flow, Restorative Styles, Therapeutic and Hatha Yoga.

True Blue Bay Boutique Resort has added a modern conference facility equipped to accommodate up to 150 guests with catering facilities, conference equipment and connectivity. Corporate retreats, conferences and other groups can be booked starting in May.

With a newly built Yoga Pavilion by the beach, Green Roof Inn is ready to host yoga retreats for groups between six and 15 people. The property has also implemented a plan of action for sustainable tourism by supporting the local market, seeking out equipment and maintenance products regionally, recycling food from the kitchen to feed local animals and heating water with solar energy. The focus is to provide sustainable tourism options for travelers visiting the island of Carriacou. 

The Island’s Biggest Challenge: Like most of the other Caribbean representatives involved in our roundtable, Noel-Horsford tells Travel Agent that airlift continues to be the destination’s biggest challenge. 

“I think the common issue for everybody in the room, I’m sure, is airlift, more airlift. For us, right now we’re grateful for the airlines that come to Grenada,” she says. “We have JetBlue daily from JFK, and also American Airlines from Miami daily as well, and then we have Delta [Air Lines] seasonal from Atlanta and the Caribbean islands.

“But like some of my other colleagues,” she continues, “we want to definitely focus on some other secondary markets like Atlanta, for instance. That’s a really good market for the Caribbean in general. For Grenada, in particular, Boston is a really good market. I think the clientele, the profile of the clientele is a good fit for Grenada, but we find it a challenge for us going there, doing a show and then they cannot get to the destination.” 

St. Vincent and The Grenadines

Luxury hotels and a new airport continue to propel St. Vincent and The Grenadines, which was not affected by the hurricane seasons, into 2018, says Celia Ross-Latham, director of sales for the St. Vincent and The Grenadines Tourism Office.

Perhaps the biggest luxury splash this year in this island nation was made when Mandarin Oriental officially opened its new Pink Sands Club on the northern end of the island of Canouan. The resort has 26 colonial-style suites and six four-bedroom Lagoon Villas, all with views of Godhal Beach and the Atlantic Ocean.  

Also, the new Argyle International Airport finally opened last year. Plans for the airport had lingered since 2008. But after its official opening in February of 2017, the destination can expect a wealth of new visitors from new markets. 

The Island’s Biggest Challenge: This may have been met this year. While airlift continues to be a challenge for St. Vincent and The Grenadines, the destination recently celebrated new weekly service from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to the new Argyle International Airport (SVD) on the main island, St. Vincent. The flights, which will be operated by Caribbean Airlines, represent the first direct service to the destination from New York. 

“It’s a great service, and obviously we’ve never had something very specific to the Grenadines,” says Ross-Latham. “So far, in 2018, our figures have shown effects of that directly,so it’s going to be an exciting year.” 

Mandarin Oriental’s Pink Sands Club, Canouan made a big splash in St. Vincent and The Grenadines when it opened earlier this year. 

The Caribbean as a Whole

Sylma Brown, director for the U.S. for the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), tells Travel Agent that Caribbean hotels were not “totally sold out” for the Christmas holiday as tourism officials had predicted because not all consumers rerouted their hurricane-ruined vacations within the Caribbean. 

“In the late part of 2017, CHTA had reported that the bookings were strong across the hotel sector, and that even over the Christmas holidays they were predicting that some of the hotels in the Caribbean would be totally sold out,” she says. “The reality was a little different. Some Caribbean countries benefited from some of the movement, but so did some of the other warm weather destinations [outside of the region]. At the end of the day, the picture was not as bright as we had hoped it would be.”

But she concludes that Americans’ will to travel coupled with ongoing marketing campaigns will help Caribbean tourism return to normalcy. 

“I’m fairly certain that the optimism and determination we’ve experienced from more member countries who were affected, the optimism, and the dedication to build back better, will resonate with consumers when they plan their travel vacation over the next few months,” says Brown. “The hotels will come back. The hotels are coming on stream very slowly, but they are definitely coming back with new products, more innovative products.” 

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