Despite back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes that devastated several Caribbean islands in September, the region is reporting a milestone year in tourism arrivals.
Travel Agent listened in Thursday morning on the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s (CTO) annual Caribbean Tourism Performance Report, in which Ryan Skeete, director of research for the CTO, revealed that the Caribbean reached an estimated $37 billion in total visitor spending for 2017.
Caribbean tourism also reached another milestone in 2017, surpassing 30 million stay-over/tourist visits for the first time “despite the devastating September hurricanes,” says Skeete.
“In short, despite the challenges in 2017, more visitors arrived in the Caribbean and they spent more,” says Hugh Riley, secretary general of the CTO. “Is that enough? Is our work now done? Not by a long way. The Caribbean, with our highly completive tourism products, has quite some distance to go.”
And Alex Zozaya, CEO of the Apple Leisure Group, who also joined the press conference, agreed that the Caribbean’s work is far from over, citing the ongoing challenge of convincing the consumer that the Caribbean as a region is not entirely devastated.
“The perception that the Caribbean is not fully back in business has affected us a little,” says Zozaya, who noted that the Caribbean is still seeing growth even from many destinations that were damaged.
Stay-over arrivals were on track for a strong performance during the first-half of 2017, growing by an estimated 4.8 percent. However, there was a major slowdown in the second half performance due to the impact of the September hurricanes as tourist visits declined by 1.7 percent.
“Perception becomes reality, so we combat the news perception with information," says Zozaya. "We rely heavily on travel agents when it comes to informing the consumers better, but we do everything we can like sending maps that show only the small section of the Caribbean that was affected.”
These outcomes resulted in an overall increase of 1.7 percent to reach 30.1 million visits, marking the eighth consecutive year of growth, albeit slower than the average global growth rate of 6.7 percent. Therefore, the Caribbean market share of global visits in 2017 shrunk by 0.1 percentage points, to register 2.3 percent of the market.
“Overall I see good news,” says Zozaya. “The market is growing the overall for the travel industry, particularly for the Caribbean. We shouldn’t consider that the job is done. The potential we have ahead of us is tremendous, especially from U.S.”
Among the destinations, tourist arrivals showed uneven growth. Several countries reported double-digit increases in 2017, such as St. Lucia (11 percent), Belize (10.8 percent), and Bermuda (10.3 percent), while the hurricane-impacted countries recorded decreases ranging from down 18 percent to down seven percent.
The contributing factors to the excellent performances in those countries included greater air access from the source markets to the region and the realization of significant investments, including hotels, to enhance the tourism product.
Regarding the major Caribbean sub-regions, the U.S. Territories (down 7.9 percent), the Dutch Caribbean (down 6.6 percent) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) (down 3.6 percent) reported declines, while the grouping dubbed Other Caribbean comprising Cancun, Cozumel, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Suriname, which accounts for almost half of all arrivals to the region, recorded an increase of six percent. Caricom recorded an increase of 1.7 percent.
Most major source markets recorded growth, except the South American and Caribbean markets, which declined by 6.5 percent and 1.3 percent respectively, reflecting weak economic conditions.
The major source market, the U.S., grew by approximately 0.5 percent to reach an estimated 14.9 million visits to the region. This performance was attributed to solid economic growth, a low unemployment rate and high consumer confidence in the U.S.
Arrivals from the European market totaled 5.8 million and improved by an estimated 6.2 percent, the strongest growth among the main markets, in spite of terrorist attacks in some countries, and the continuing Brexit negotiations and the related uncertainties.
Visits from the Canadian market rebounded in 2017, growing by 4.3 percent compared to a decline of 3.1 percent in 2016. The country’s strong economic performance and increased seat capacity to the region helped support this recovery.
Despite the slight increase in arrivals to the region, hotel occupancy fell by 1.2 percent, according to STR, Inc (formerly Smith Travel Research), a U.S. company that tracks supply and demand data for the hotel industry. However, the primary revenue metrics were all up, average daily rate (ADR) increased by 1.9 percent to $204.64, and revenue per available room grew by 0.7 percent to $135.85.
Notably, the hotel performance indicators excluded most of the hurricane-impacted destinations at this time, due to the disruption in operations caused by the hurricanes.
As part of our recent coverage of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s (CHTA) 2018 Caribbean Travel Marketplace, Frank Comito, CEO and director general for the CHTA, said the three factors that affected performance last year were hurricanes; airlift (its availability and cost) and the perception of safety.
“Overall, 2017 was a mixed bag,” says Comito. “Stopover arrivals were up, but were below forecast. There was a 1.2 percent dip in occupancy, but imagine if there were no storms. Had you taken that out of the picture, we would have had a really good year as a region.”
Total revenues were up for 32 percent of hotels and down for 44 percent of hotels. Hotels rates were reduced by 35 percent of hotels while rates increased for 40 percent of hotels.
Also, Comito mentioned that room occupancy was down for 45 percent of the hotels and up for 25 percent of hotels. Employment levels of hotels increased for 44 percent of properties while 20 percent of hotels reported a decline. Comito noted that RevPar was up sightly with a 0.7 percent slightly.
The September hurricanes caused significant disruption for airlines during the final quarter of 2017. As a result, seat capacity fell by 7.2 percent in the fourth quarter, according to OAG, an air travel intelligence company. Nevertheless, overall seat capacity increased by 1.7 percent in 2017, reflecting a solid first-half performance.
Cruise passenger arrivals also set a new benchmark in 2017, despite the hurricanes, reaching an estimated 27 million visits to the region, which is 2.4 percent higher than recorded numbers in 2016. The cruise passenger performance mirrors the performance of tourist arrivals, as it grew strongly (4.6 percent) in the first half of 2017, but contracted marginally (down 0.4 percent) in the second half of the year. Indeed, cruise passenger arrivals fell dramatically in September by roughly 20 percent. However, growth resumed in October, which saw a two percent increase.
Consistent with increases in stay-over and cruise visits, total visitor expenditure is estimated to have increased by roughly 2.6 percent to reach $37.0 billion in 2017. This performance marks the eighth consecutive year of growth. Overall, stay-over visitors spent an estimated $34.2 billion, or $1,230 per trip, compared to $1,129 per trip in 2016.
Global economic conditions are expected to be favorable in 2018. All of the major economies are projected to grow strongly, oil prices are expected to remain relatively low, and hourly wages are expected to increase again in the U.S. following years of stagnation.
"These factors bode well for tourism in the Caribbean," says Skeete. "On the downside, there is rising geopolitical tensions, the persistent threat of major terrorist attacks, and the heightened risk of extreme weather events. Consequently, we are projecting that tourist arrivals will increase between two to three percent in 2018."
According to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA), booking data indicates that demand for Caribbean cruises remains quite strong. The demand is supported by their multimedia campaign, “The Caribbean is Open”, launched soon after the hurricanes.