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Crippling 2017 storms wracked Caribbean visitor growth in 2018

by Brian Major From Travel Pulse

PHOTO: Caribbean visitor growth will increase by six to seven percent in 2019 said CTO CEO and secretary general Hugh Riley. (Photo by Brian Major).

While the crippling hurricanes of September 2017 were expected to take a toll on Caribbean visitor arrivals, the full impact became more evident on Wednesday at a Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) press briefing, during which officials outlined the storms’ derailment of 2018 arrivals growth for several destinations.

Caribbean nations recorded 29.9 million tourist visits in 2018, a 2.3 percent decline from the region’s record 30.6 million visitors in 2017. The 2018 downturn was the Caribbean’s first annual arrivals decline in nine years and ended what officials had previously forecast would be another record-breaking season.

Nevertheless, the Caribbean is poised for a return to strong visitor growth in 2019, said Hugh Riley, CTO’s CEO and secretary general. CTO is predicting arrivals will increase between 6 and 7 percent in 2019, “as the damaged infrastructure in the hurricane-impacted destinations returns to capacity.”

Caribbean cruise arrivals, which reached record totals in 2018 despite the 2017 storms, should expand by a further 4 to 5 percent in 2019.

Powerful Impact From Storms

Particularly hard-hit in 2018 were what CTO characterizes as the U.S. territories (includingPuerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (including Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands) and the Dutch Caribbean (including St. Maarten, which reported declines of 29. percent, 7.6 percent and 7 percent, respectively). Several hurricane-impacted countries also recorded double-digit declines said Riley.

Yet, despite the falloff, the actual 2018 visitor decline was less than the 3 to 4 percent CTO officials had forecasted in the storms’ immediate aftermath. What’s more, Caribbean visitor arrivals rebounded strongly in the last four months of 2018, recording a 3 percent increase in September and an 11.8 percent increase in October, CTO officials said.

Arrivals in the last four months of 2018 were up 9.8 percent. Even the Caribbean destinations severely impacted by the 2017 hurricanes experienced “a significant turnaround” over the last four months of 2018, registering “triple-digit increases” during this period, said Riley.

Growth Reports

While storm-impacted Caribbean islands suffered significant visitor loss, several other countries reported double-digit visitor growth in 2018, including Guyana (a 15.9 percent increase), Belize (14.6 percent), the Cayman Islands (10.7 percent), the Bahamas (10.5 percent) and Grenada (10 percent). Targeted marketing, upgraded tourism infrastructure, additional rooms and enhanced airlift supported visitor growth in those countries, said Riley.

PHOTO: Visitors to the Bahamas increased 10.5 percent in 2018. (Photo by Brian Major)

CTO’s “Other Caribbean” group—which includes Cancun and Cozumel, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Suriname—recorded a collective 1.8 percent arrivals increase in 2018. The countries account for nearly half of all Caribbean arrivals.

CTO also reported that although the United States remains the Caribbean’s most significant source market, Canada out-performed the U.S. and every other market in 2018 with a 5.7 percent visitor increase based on 3.9 million arrivals. Riley attributed the increase to a strengthened Canadian economy and increased airline seat capacity.

At the same time, 2018’s 13.9 million American tourist visits represented a 6.3 percent year-over-year decline. Predictably, the downturn was driven by “steep declines in arrivals to popular destinations impacted by the hurricanes,” said Ryan Skeete, CTO’s acting director of research.

The declining destinations included Puerto Rico (down by 45.6 percent) and St. Maarten (a 79 percent decrease). American travel to the Caribbean did rebound in the fourth quarter of 2018, increasing 28 percent, said Skeete.

Air and Sea

Overall air capacity to the Caribbean dropped 3.4 percent in 2018, based on data from OAG, while the number of flights declined by 4.3 percent, said Skeete. As with arrivals, the laggard air capacity trend reversed in the fourth quarter of 2018 as seat capacity increased 5.3 percent and flight frequency grew by 5.2 percent.

The Caribbean’s cruise sector offered its best-ever performance in 2018, recovering quickly from the 2017 hurricanes and posting 28.9 million visitors in 2018, up 6.7 percent year-over-year, said CTO.

Cruise activity “was subdued in the first four months” of 2018, followed by “sustained month-over-month growth as cruise ships returned to the ports and hubs that were rebuilt after the hurricanes,” said Skeete.

Riley said the Caribbean’s share of global tourism shrank by 0.2 percent in 2018 to 2.1 percent of the market. Regional destinations will seek to improve on that performance in 2019, he said.

waterfall / Grenada
PHOTO: Grenada recorded a 10 percent visitor arrivals increase in 2018. (Photo by Brian Major)

“The details illustrate a few of the tourism sector’s realities,” said Riley. “Travel and tourism is a massive industry that is rapidly growing on a global basis. It is susceptible to a variety of external shocks—natural and man-made. It is flexible and resilient and high competitive and bursting with opportunity for the people of the Caribbean and our advancement and growth if we are willing to take full advantage.”

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