Caribbean Tourism Looks to Build on Momentum That Closed Out 2018

Aerial view of Philipsburg in Saint Maarten
Saint Maarten // Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The Caribbean tourism sector is projected to record strong growth in 2019 on the heels of a stronger-than-expected performance last year. In fact, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) is forecasting 6-7 percent growth this year, continuing an upward trend which began last September.

“We are projecting that tourist arrivals will increase by between six and seven percent in 2019, as the damaged infrastructure in the hurricane-impacted destinations returns to capacity,” Ryan Skeete the CTO’s acting director of research said at the Caribbean Tourism Performance Review news conference, which was broadcast on Facebook Live. “Similarly, cruise arrivals should expand by a further four percent to five percent.”

Skeete did caution of possible “significant headwinds to navigate,” including the outcome of the Brexit negotiations in the U.K., the on-going trade war between the United States and China and potential extreme weather events in the destinations and marketplaces. 

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Ryan Skeete

Still, he says, the outlook for Caribbean tourism in 2019 should be cautiously optimistic. The optimism comes from the 9.8 percent growth from September to December—including growth many destinations that showed significant declines compares to others. It was a sharp turnaround from the previous eight months of decline. 

“Even the destinations that were severely impacted by the 2017 hurricanes, despite registering overall double-digit declines last year, experienced a significant turnaround during the last four months, registering triple-digit increases during this period,” Skeete said.

The 29.9 million tourist visits in 2018 represented the second highest number of visitors to the Caribbean on record, surpassed only by the 30.6 million who visited in 2017. And while this represented a 2.3 percent decline overall, it was better that the anticipated three percent to four percent fall-off.

According to information compiled from CTO member countries, Canada was the strongest performing market: Its 3.9 million visits represented a 5.7 percent rise. The intra-Caribbean market had its best performance ever, reaching two million visitors, while South America produced 1.9 million tourist visits, representing a 3.6 percent increase. Arrivals from Europe grew by a modest 1.3 percent, with U.K. arrivals remaining flat at an estimated 1.3 million.

However, the United States, which remains the region’s leading market, was down, with the 13.9 million American tourist visits representing a 6.3 percent fall. This was due mainly to steep declines in arrivals to popular destinations impacted by the hurricanes, such as Puerto Rico, which was down by 45.6 percent, and St. Maarten, which fell by 79 percent. This notwithstanding, there was a healthy 28 percent rise in arrivals from the U.S. in the fourth quarter, reflecting the strong turnaround during this period.  

Another positive was found in visitor spend. While overall spend declined by around 1 percent, visitors spent slightly more per trip. Similarly, ADR increased by roughly 2 percent, which can be the result of several factors, including traveler demand and improved properties following the hurricanes. So, overall, most signs point to a strong year for Caribbean tourism.

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