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Travel 2014: The Top Caribbean and Latin America Stories of 2014

630x355By Brian Major From Travel Pulse

It proved to be another challenging year for destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America. Aruba, Belize, the Cayman Islands, Grenada, Haiti, Montserrat and the Turks & Caicos all reported tourist arrivals growth exceeding 10 percent.

Meanwhile more regional destinations added new air services and expanded established networks. Amber Cove, a new themed cruise port, opened in the Dominican Republic as new cruise port projects were launched in Belize and Haiti, and Jamaica successfully renovated its Ocho Rios cruise port.

Brazil lost on the field but enjoyed a stunning success in tourist arrivals during this summer’s FIFA World Cup tournament. Jamaica and the Bahamas and Puerto Rico prepared for an infusion of new hotels and resorts while simultaneously expanding the cultural and historic attractions that distinguish their destinations.

These countries surmounted crippling storms, a fractured and inconsistent air transportation network, scant investment capital, political scuffles and competition from other warm-weather destinations to generate the positive economic benefits that proceed from strong tourist arrivals growth. Destinations across the region will seek to accomplish the same results in 2015.

Dominican tourism continues rapid growth

Already the top Caribbean destination in terms of visitor arrivals, tourism to the Dominican Republic continued their surge in 2014. Non-resident air arrivals totaled 323,488 for October, a 14 percent increase over 2013, according to data from the Central Bank of the Dominican Republic. The country’s 4,214,764 arrivals through October were a 9.7 percent increase over 2013.

The Dominican Republic hosted 4.7 million overnight tourists in 2013 according to Caribbean Tourism Organization data, nearly twice the visitors hosted by Cuba, the next-largest country. Dominican tourism grew 3.6 percent in 2013 “while the entire Caribbean grew only one percent,” one Dominican official noted. U.S. travelers accounted for 1.6 million travelers to the country last year, or 40 percent of its visitors.

The government is partnering in tourism projects ranging from a refurbishment of buildings in the Santo Domingo historic district to the October 2015 launch of Carnival Cruise Lines’ $65 million Amber Cove cruise port in Puerto Plata.

Cayman Islands in race to capitalize on arrivals success

Like other Caribbean destinations, Cayman Islands tourism growth is challenged issues that include outdated and insufficient tourist infrastructure. In the Cayman Islands however, those challenges were accompanied in 2014 by sharply higher tourist arrivals.

The destination Cayman hosted 293,652 land-based visitors between January and September of 2014, a 12.3 percent leap over 2013 totals. Cruise-ship arrivals through September 2014 totaled 1.18 million guests, up 19 percent over 2013 and making the Cayman Islands the fifth-most popular Caribbean cruise port.

The Cayman archipelago’s tourism success is surprising considering its numerous infrastructure challenges. Owen Roberts International Airport is outdated, subject to overcrowding, and operates at double its 500,000-person capacity during peak periods. Also despite being among the most popular cruise destinations, Cayman has no pier or terminal for large ships.

The Cayman government is advancing on both fronts, said Moses Kirkconnell, the Cayman Islands’ tourism minister. Cayman has completed environmental impact and logistical studies tied to the re-development of the airport and the launch of a cruise ship facility; the government will launch construction on a new airport terminal in early 2015 and will “seek to start work on a new cruise ship pier and terminal” in 2015, Kirkconnell said.

Haiti makes strides in push to re-establish Caribbean tourism primacy

Haiti took important strides in 2014 to transition from its struggle with poverty, a fraught political history and the devastating 2010 earthquake to re-emerge as a mainstream Caribbean vacation destination, a status the country enjoyed for a brief period between the 1950s and early 1980s.

Over the past two years Haiti’s government has unveiled plans for thousands of new hotel rooms, resorts and cruise developments at sites around the country.

The projects include a 5,680-acre development at Cotes-de-Fer, a small fishing village, to feature 20,000 rooms spread across four hotels with an 18–hole golf course, a beach club and a small airport.

On the southern Haitian island of Ile-a-Vache, the government has launched work on a 2,500-room resort development that will also include an international airport. In August, Haiti inked a memorandum of understanding with cruise operator Carnival Corp. to build a $70 million pier and facility on Tortuga Island.

Sandals continues fast-paced Caribbean expansion

Already the number one Caribbean resort company, Sandals Resorts International continued its expansion beyond its home island of Jamaica to establish new properties in destinations across the Caribbean. The company’s growth has been revolutionary, so much so that Sandals is now widely recognized as the largest employer in the Caribbean.

That’s not to say that the company has abandoned its home island of Jamaica. On the contrary, in September company officials announced plans to build a new 600-room Beaches resort on Jamaica’s southwest coast, adjacent to the existing Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa. Earlier this year Sandals announced it will convert the company’s Grand Pineapple resort in Antigua to a Beaches property.

The New Beaches properties will add to Sandals’ growing contingent of upscale resorts across the Caribbean. Earlier this year the company launched 225-room Sandals La Source Grenada on the site of the former La Source resort on Pink Gin Beach. Sandals Barbados, also acquired earlier in 2014, will re-open this month following a $65 million renovation. In October Sandals officials reached an agreement with Barbados’ government to manage a new Beaches Resort to be built on the site of the former Almond Beach Resort in St. Peter’s parish.

Brazil “wins” the World Cup with strong arrivals and impact

While the country’s national team fell far short of expectations, Brazil scored a win for travel to the nation through its hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup competition.

Brazil attracted millions of visitors and created tremendous interest in travel to the country as a result of its hosting of the event. One million foreign tourists visited Brazil between June 12 and July 13, the opening and closing dates of the event, and 95 percent said they plan to return, said Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president. The attendee total was 67 percent higher than the 600,000 tourists Brazil’s tourism board predicted. More than 60 percent of attendees were visiting the country for the first time.

In addition, Brazil also scored on social and broadcast media during the tournament. The 2014 World Cup generated one billion Facebook posts, likes and comments in the first half of the event alone, making it the most talked-about event in Facebook history. The event generated 618,725 Twitter Tweets per minute during the July 13 final match, a new record according to company officials.

Consequently, Brazilian hotels recorded a 50.1 percent increase in average daily rate (ADR) in June and a 36.1 percent ADR increase in July compared with 2013, according to Travel research firm STR Global. Rio de Janeiro reported the strongest occupancy and ADR among the host cities, according to the report. The city served as the event’s media center and also hosted seven matches.

More than a million travelers entered Brazil in July and July, spending $1.58 billion, Walter Ferreira, deputy chairman of Embratur (Brazil’s tourism board). The event also served as an impromptu test run for Brazil’s hosting of the 2016 Olympics. “Brazil showed to the world that we are ready to host an event of this magnitude,” said Vinicius Lages, Brail’s tourism minister.

Booming Belize poised for strong tourist arrivals growth

For Belize, 2014 will likely wind up as the country’s most successful year ever in terms of tourist arrivals. Belize hosted 1,018,705 visitors through October, according to Belize Tourism Board (BTB) data. The total includes 266,107 land-based arrivals and 752,598 cruise-ship visitors.

Belize’s reached the one million visitor mark comes two months earlier than BTB officials had earlier forecast. The country has twice hosted one million or more annual visitors: in 2005 (1,036,904 travelers, the country’s highest-ever total) and 2010 (1,006,547).

With winter beginning in North America, its largest traveler market, Belize now enters the traditional “high” season. “We expect to set a record as we close off 2014 with November and December arrivals,” said Karen Bevans, director of tourism. “We are anticipating that we will hit that elusive 300,000 overnight visitor mark.”

Belize’s previous profile as a sleepy, low-key tourist destination is changing. The country continues to take small but certain steps toward wider leisure tourism growth. For example the country is partnering with Norwegian Cruise Line to build Harvest Caye, a 75-acre, $50 million cruise destination on two adjoining islands in southern Belize. The project will reportedly likely include a floating pier, an island village with open-air structures on raised platforms, a marina, a transportation hub for tours, a lagoon for water sports and a beach area.

Earlier this year Jose Manuel Heredia Jr., the country’s minister of tourism and culture, said Belize has secured additional funding for tourism infrastructure development and is “negotiating other cooperation agreements to support the development of tourism infrastructure with key international partners.”

Caribbean leaders talk marijuana tourism

In 2014 Caribbean officials finally acknowledged what has long been an open secret: many U.S. travelers visit the islands with the expectation of smoking “ganja.” Regional tourism officials issued their first documented comments on Caribbean marijuana tourism During a Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) conference.

“It is entirely up to destinations within and outside of the Caribbean to determine whether they want to use marijuana as a magnet to draw tourists,” said Hugh Riley, CTO’s secretary general. “It is a factor, we have to discuss it, and we are going to study it further.”

In October Jamaica’s government followed through on efforts to decriminalize marijuana. Lawmakers drafted legislation to amend the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act to allow marijuana cultivation for medicinal and industrial uses.

Earlier Phillip Paulwell, a member of Jamaica’s parliament, had earlier predicted that “decriminalization of the weed will become a reality” in 2014.

While it remains illegal in Jamaica, marijuana is available in areas frequented by vacationers. An underground tourist-driven marijuana economy already operates across the island. Similar situations exist in other Caribbean destinations.

Although the CTO did launch a marijuana tourism discussion as part of the conference’s panel on medical tourism, officials are not making recommendations just yet. “There is some learning that our member countries can do in that regard,” continued Riley. “But we are not setting any national policies here. We are simply providing information for our constituents.”

Regardless, some Caribbean stakeholders are calling for destinations to embrace marijuana as a tourism draw. At the conference Terrence Nelson, a member of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ legislature, said “[CTO] should adapt cannabis as a Caribbean commodity. Because most people come to the Caribbean and they anticipate smoking weed.”

Nelson called for the establishment of a “Caribbean cannabis trade organization” to market Caribbean marijuana tourism. “We need to position ourselves to market to our greatest market – America,” he said.

A handful of other Caribbean leaders called for discussion on marijuana decriminalization in 2014, including Kamla Persad-Bissessar, prime minister of Trinidad & Tobago, and Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Last year Michael Dunkley, Bermuda’s public safety minister, promised a “mature, public discussion on decriminalization,” but that has yet to occur.

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