“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
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
But factors such as aggressive marketing, improved air service
and the Internet are giving the Caribbean a boost in bookings from
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Although all-inclusives are prevalent in the Caribbean, the
region also offers European plan properties spanning all
“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
“That’s our main market from the West Coast,” Figueroa said,
adding that passengers often book pre- and post-cruise trips in
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
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
“We’re seeing a lot more people (from the West) because they
have an alternative,” confirmed Air Jamaica Vacations’
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
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
And among the most frequent reasons clients don’t book the
Caribbean? None of the agents polled said it’s because they don’t
|MINING AN UNTAPPED MARKET|
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
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
“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
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.