Caribbean Calling

Increased air service and aggressive promotions foster travel from the Western U.S.

By: Mimi Kmet

“It’s too far.”

“It costs too much.”

“It’s an unknown quantity.”

These are some of the reasons people living in the Western U.S. traditionally give for not booking the Caribbean. Yet despite those misgivings, bookings from the West are steadily growing. Why? Among the reasons:

Depending on the Caribbean destination, it actually is sometimes closer than other tropical destinations.

The cost varies, from budget to luxury.

It’s an unknown quantity.

Sure, Hawaii and Mexico draw many more tourists from the West. According to a recent TravelAge West survey, Hawaii draws 46 percent of the tropical bookings while Mexico captures 36 percent.

But factors such as aggressive marketing, improved air service and the Internet are giving the Caribbean a boost in bookings from the West.

In fact, the Caribbean now accounts for a large share of some Western agencies’ business. For example, the region represents 40 to 50 percent of bookings at Verliz Travel’s Lakewood, Calif., office, according to agency manager Howard Witter.

Caribbean bookings represent about 35 percent of the business from Nicasio, Calif.-based Travel Wizard’s network of home-based agents, according to Bob McMillen, CEO and founder.

Growth in Caribbean bookings from the West hasn’t always been on the rise. As recently as 2001, travel from the West decreased by 0.1 percent, due mainly to 9/11 and other world events. But so did travel from some other parts of the country.

However, travel to the Caribbean has been increasing ever since.

“Over the past few years of global economic turbulence, international conflicts and an overall deterrence to travel, visitor traffic to the Caribbean from West Coast cities ... remained unaffected and actually increased in many cases,” said Hugh Riley, the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s director of marketing for the Americas. “Aggressive marketing initiatives, well-positioned promotions and strong travel industry support have played a key role in this upward trend.”

That trend is expected to continue. In fact, 62 percent of respondents in the TravelAge West survey said they expect their Caribbean vacation sales to increase in 2004, while 34 percent expect them to stay the same, and only 4 percent expect them to decrease.

The online survey was conducted Jan. 28-Feb. 2 by TravelAge West and its parent company’s Northstar Travel Media Research. Findings are based on responses from 340 travel agency owners, managers and agents in the Western U.S.

One significant boost in Caribbean travel has come from wholesalers. The islands have been a staple of travel companies such as Air Jamaica Vacations, GoGo Worldwide Vacations, Apple Vacations and Happy Tours for years, and their support of travel agencies is well known.

In recent years, Classic Custom Vacations, Pleasant Holidays and SunTrips West Coast-based companies that are established Hawaii wholesalers started offering Caribbean packages.

While specific numbers aren’t available from Classic Custom, which launched its Caribbean product nationwide in 1999, Suzi LeVine, vice president of marketing, said the company has seen an increase in bookings from West Coast travel agencies.

Clients started traveling to the Caribbean via Pleasant’s offerings just last year, and the wholesaler already expects to double its business this year, according to Ken Phillips, the company’s staff vice president, corporate communications and promotions.

The most recent entry into that market is SunTrips, which launched seasonal air service and packages to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, from Denver in December. The offerings will be available through mid-April.

Response has been positive, according to Helen Zimmerman, the company’s marketing and publicity specialist. “We are looking at ways to improve upon this and extend the program,” she said.

Meanwhile, air service from the West, traditionally a thorn in the Caribbean’s side, has improved, with a surge in nonstop flights within the last few months, including service on American Airlines, Air Jamaica and Continental Airlines (see sidebar).

In the TravelAge West survey, 39 percent of the agents polled said distance/flight time topped the list of the reasons clients give most frequently for not booking the Caribbean. “Until recently, just getting people to places like Cancun or Puerto Rico, not to mention places like Nevis, was difficult,” Travel Wizard’s McMillen said.

American’s new service to Puerto Rico has given that island a big boost, according to Yolanda Figueroa, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company’s regional director for the West Coast and Midwest.

In the TravelAge West survey, 30 percent of agents polled included Puerto Rico among the top three Caribbean destinations they sell, which overall placed fourth behind Jamaica, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Historically, the connections (to Puerto Rico) were never really that bad through cities such as Miami and Dallas,” Figueroa said. “But with airport security restrictions, people want to get to their final destination as quickly as possible.”

Air Jamaica’s daily, nonstop air service from Los Angeles is the main reason why Jamaica is so popular with Westerners, according to Donnie Dawson, deputy director of tourism-USA for the Jamaica Tourist Board.

Indeed, Jamaica topped the list of the most popular Caribbean destinations in the survey, with 68 percent. And according to the Jamaica Tourist Board, more than 70,000 travelers from the West visited the island last year, placing it second behind the Bahamas in visitor arrivals from the West in 2003.

“You can’t beat the nonstop service,” said John Lynch, vice president of Sandals and Beaches, which has several properties in Jamaica. “The more lift you get to the Caribbean, the more it catches on.”

However, lack of nonstop air doesn’t necessarily preclude travel to a destination. The Bahamas and the USVI were mentioned by 54 percent and 38 percent of agents, respectively, in the TravelAge West survey. In addition, arrivals to the Bahamas from the West have risen by 5.6 percent from 1998 to 2002, when that destination saw more than 78,000 Western visitors. And arrivals from the West to the USVI in 2003 jumped 7.6 percent over the year before, to 60,050.

Tourism officials from those destinations attribute their popularity in part to convenient connections. One-connection service is available from the West through cities such as Atlanta and Miami.

In particular, connecting flights from Miami to the Bahamas depart practically every half hour on carriers such as American Eagle, Bahamas Air and Continental Express/Gulfstream, with a 45-minute flight time, said Vernice Walkine, deputy director general of tourism for the Bahamas Tourist Office.

The Bahamas are “the closest offshore destination for Americans, even for those in the West,” she said. “It’s 60 miles closer to the West Coast than Hawaii.” Travelers flying American’s nonstop Los Angeles-San Juan service can take a 15-minute connecting flight to St. Thomas, said Ludvig Harrigan, Western regional manager of the USVI Department of Tourism.

Even more distant islands reported increased arrivals from the West. The Aruba Tourism Authority reported an increase of 9.5 percent from 2002 to 2003. More notably, arrivals from Texas jumped 20.7 percent. A spokeswoman for the ATA attributed the destination’s growth to new and expanded airlift and additional seats. In addition, the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism reported an increase in arrivals from the West Coast of 3.5 percent.

Western travelers also are seeing the value in booking a Caribbean vacation, according to tourism officials. At first glance, it looks expensive, especially considering published air fares and all-inclusive rack rates.

“Fares (from the West to the USVI) are rarely lower than $800 roundtrip,” Harrigan said, although he occasionally sees specials as low as $600. But while airfare can be expensive, said Brad Anderson, co-owner of Anderson Travel in San Diego, “there are some really great deals out there for all-inclusive vacations. When you take the time to explain what’s included, it’s a shockingly good value.”

Although all-inclusives are prevalent in the Caribbean, the region also offers European plan properties spanning all budgets.

“The Caribbean has all price ranges,” said Travel Wizard’s McMillen. “Except for Oahu, Hawaii mostly has four- and five-star properties. There’s a bigger spread in the Caribbean, but the high end is really high, and the low end is really low.”

Added Bryan Shilling, president of Air Jamaica Vacations: “It depends on what you’re looking for. If you want to go anywhere fairly cheaply, you can. Is (the Caribbean) a value? Yes.”

Pricing for SunTrips’ Puerto Plata packages start at $699 per person, double, for seven nights, including airfare.

Cruising is a big factor in introducing Westerners to the region. The Caribbean is the largest cruise destination in the world for many lines, some of which depart San Juan. In fact, 61 percent of those polled in the TravelAge West survey said “want to cruise there” was one of the reasons clients give for booking a Caribbean vacation.

“That’s our main market from the West Coast,” Figueroa said, adding that passengers often book pre- and post-cruise trips in Puerto Rico.

In addition, ports such as San Juan; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Nassau, Bahamas; St. Maarten; and St. Thomas, USVI, give cruisers a taste of the Caribbean and often leave them hungry for more.

“A lot of people go there on a cruise, come back and want more time than 10 hours in port,” Anderson said. “So they go back to the destination they fell in love with for a week.”

The Internet is another reason why Western travel agents are booking more Caribbean vacations. The Web allows them to book travel to clients nationwide.

“You have travel agents on the West Coast who have an increased Web presence, and that breaks beyond geographical bounds,” Classic’s LeVine said.

“We are international; we book people from all over the world,” McMillen said. Although most of Anderson’s home-based agents book clients from the West, he said, “Our strategy is that if someone wants to talk us about a product we’re selling, we don’t care where they are.”

In addition, Western travelers often want to explore different destinations. “Some people who are going to Hawaii are trying different places now, and the Caribbean is one of them,” Anderson said.

“We’re seeing a lot more people (from the West) because they have an alternative,” confirmed Air Jamaica Vacations’ Shilling.

While “all-inclusive vacation” and “beach vacation” tied as the top reasons clients book the Caribbean in the TravelAge West survey, with 70 percent of agents polled naming each reason, more than a third of respondents gave “never been there” as a motivation.

Agents themselves have been a source of motivation for Caribbean bookings as well: More than half of the survey respondents said “recommended by you, the travel agent” was a reason clients book the region.

And among the most frequent reasons clients don’t book the Caribbean? None of the agents polled said it’s because they don’t recommend it.


Although the Western U.S. is not the Caribbean’s biggest travel market, tourism organizations and suppliers see value in marketing their products to travel agents and consumers here.

Many Western clients who book the Caribbean are looking for high-end vacations, and they tend to stay longer and subsequently spend more than Easterners, tourism officials say.

A recent survey by TravelAge West found that four to seven nights is the average length of stay for 81 percent of the respondents’ bookings, and eight to 10 nights is the average length of stay for 15 percent.

Tourism organizations for eight Caribbean destinations operate offices in the West: the Bahamas, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, the French West Indies, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands all have Los Angeles offices.

In Texas, Aruba operates an office in The Woodlands, the Bahamas has a Sugarland office, and the Cayman Islands has a Houston office.

While the Jamaica Tourist Board closed its Los Angeles office last summer, it employs sales representatives in southern and northern California, according to Donnie Dawson, deputy director of tourism-USA for the Jamaica Tourist Board.

“The West is very important to us,” he said. “That is where we see rapid growth, in California, particularly.”

The JTB launched targeted advertising in the West last year and will expand this year, he said. The organization is working with partners such as Air Jamaica Vacations, Pleasant Holidays, Classic Custom Vacations and GoGo Worldwide Vacations to place TV, radio and print advertising in the Los Angeles market.

The JTB aims to motivate Westerners to book year-round with agent fam trips in April and May, a sales blitz this month and booking incentives.

“We’re looking to increase it by 10 percent this year, and we know we can do it,” Dawson said. “Thirty-five million people live in that state. That’s more than Canada.”

In addition, suppliers such as Sandals, Beaches, Air Jamaica and Air Jamaica Vacations promote heavily in the West, and their representatives often call on agents.

For example, Air Jamaica Vacations advertises in the Los Angeles Times and develops co-op programs with travel agencies Sandals and Beaches have stepped up their TV ads in the West, according to John Lynch, vice president. The all-inclusive resorts advertise on TV as much in the West as in other parts of the country, he added.

The Puerto Rico Tourism Company is capitalizing on American Airlines’ new, nonstop Los Angeles-San Juan service. Recent and current promotions include: a public relations radio campaign, a Robinsons-May sweepstakes and an infomercial in regional markets including Los Angeles and Dallas, according to Yolanda Figueroa, the PRTC’s regional director for West Coast and Midwest.

The PRTC also is promoting “a number of new hotels under development, including Paradiso Sol Melia, Puerto Rico’s first all-inclusive,” which opened March 5, she said.

Aruba is working on a newspaper advertising campaign, a sales blitz and travel agent promotions in the West, in conjunction with Pleasant Holidays, according to a spokeswoman for the Aruba Tourism Authority. The ATA also is increasing its budget and adding a sales representative in the West.

While the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism doesn’t advertise much in the West, it does so on national cable stations, according to Ludwig Harrigan, Western regional manager.

And while the Bahamas Tourist Office moved from regional to national advertising shortly after 9/11 with ads on cable programs that reach the West, the office “didn’t promote specifically on the West Coast because we didn’t think people there would feel it was convenient to go to the Bahamas,” said Vernice Walkine, deputy director general of tourism.

Yet travel from the West has increased.

“We found that, the further away from Ground Zero people were, the better the interest in the destination,” she said. “People were even willing to make one or two layovers. We’ve proven that there’s an interest in the Bahamas on the West Coast.”

Education is the emphasis at Classic Custom Vacations, according to Suzi LeVine, vice president of marketing, noting that company representatives conduct in-office training at agencies.

Western agents and clients “know the Hawaiian Islands very well, and they know Cabo and Acapulco very well, but they need to increase their knowledge of Barbados,” she said.

At SunTrips, exclusive flyers, a fam trip and trade advertising are targeted at Western agents, said Helen Zimmerman, marketing and publicity specialist.

Pleasant Holidays is marketing its Caribbean product nationwide. “But a lot of travel agents (in other regions) already have relationships with other wholesalers, so we’re developing this market for the Caribbean,” said Ken Phillips, staff vice president of corporate communications and promotions. “One of the largest travel markets in the world is here on the West Coast, and it’s barely been tapped.”


Among the recently launched nonstop air service to the Caribbean from the West:

American Airlines launched two weekly nonstops from Los Angeles to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in December and plans to increase the service to five times a week starting in June.

Air Jamaica added service from Houston to Montego Bay, Jamaica, four times a week in February. The carrier has offered daily flights from Los Angeles to Montego Bay for several years.

Continental Airlines adds daily service from Houston to Nassau/Paradise Island, Bahamas, this month.

SunTrips’ new weekly offerings to Puerto Plata include nonstop charter service on Ryan International Airways.