The Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, is home to the city’s major tourist attractions and best restaurants. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): The Caribbean experienced a tourism boom last year thanks in part to a decline in oil prices and the strength of the U.S. dollar. // © 2016 Cuba Tourist board
Last year, Caribbean tourism experienced a historic level of growth, surpassing every major region in the world for the first time ever, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), the region’s tourism development agency.The area drew nearly 29 million people in 2015, a 7 percent increase from the previous year, and one that topped the 4 percent global tourism growth rate, according to Hugh Riley, secretary general of the CTO. The Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica saw the highest number of total arrivals.
Travelers to the Caribbean spent an estimated $30 billion in 2015, representing a $1 billion hike from the year before. The CTO estimates that last year, a trip to the tropical destination — excluding airfare — cost an average of $950, down from $975 in 2014.
“Still, the Caribbean cannot be complacent,” Riley said. “We must continue to grow our traditional markets, strengthen the emerging ones and penetrate new sources as we target the 30 million arrivals mark we set some years ago. Our efforts to improve our product quality, enhance our marketing, grow our rate base, increase our profitability and constantly offer excellent value for money must continue.”
Riley attributes several factors to the rapid growth over the past few years, including a strong U.S. dollar, economic recovery in major markets and a decline in oil prices.
North America was once again the largest market for the Caribbean, with travel from the U.S. and Canada accounting for some 60 percent of all arrivals. Though Canadian arrivals dropped slightly by 0.3 percent, the total number of U.S. travelers increased by 6.3 percent, to 14.3 million visits. The majority of Americans visited Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
The European market also experienced a surge in 2015, reaching the 5 million mark in total arrivals for the first time in seven years. Travelers from the U.K. made up a significant portion of those arrivals, with a total of 1.1 million visitors.
Although much of South America remains in the midst of a number of political and economic challenges, the Caribbean remained a popular destination for travelers from countries such as Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. In fact, the South American market experienced the highest rate of growth of trips to the Caribbean in comparison to every other sector of the world.
The cruise sector experienced minor growth, with a 1.3 percent increase in estimated cruise visits in 2015.
According to the CTO, the number of tourist arrivals from all regions of the world is expected to continue to grow in 2016 at a rate of 4.5 to 5.5 percent.
Despite the surge in tourism to the area and a bright vision for 2016, Riley says there are potential obstacles throughout the world that can’t be overlooked.
“While the outlook for 2016 is positive, we must continue to monitor some possible hurdles, such as the volatility of the economy of some of our main markets, China’s economic slowdown and the continuation of recessions and other South American countries,” Riley said. “We have seen the dramatic falls in stock markets around the world and other extraneous factors that invariably impact travel.”
In spite of possible challenges such as the mosquito-borne Zika virus that may affect tourism to the region, travel companies like Pleasant Holidays remain optimistic about the future.
“We definitely foresee continued growth in tourism to the Caribbean,” said Jeffrey Lee, Caribbean product director for Pleasant Holidays. “We expect U.S. visitors to exceed 10 million annually in the next few years as air-seat capacity and hotel development continues. The Dominican Republic is one of the hottest destinations in the Caribbean right now, with a variety of resorts already established in Punta Cana. As its popularity continues to increase, we’re seeing resort expansion into Puerto Plata and Samana to the northwest, and La Romana and Santo Domingo to the southwest.”
According to Lee, the strategic planning of tourism boards, resorts and airlines has also significantly contributed to the prosperity of the Caribbean.
In the American market, tourism boards have not only shifted to a nationwide strategy that promotes the Caribbean across the entire U.S., but also provided additional travel agent training to increase awareness and expertise.
Meanwhile, major air carriers such as JetBlue, Delta Air Lines and U.S. Airways have expanded their number of flights to and from the Caribbean. American Airlines recently launched nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Montego Bay, Jamaica, as well.
Accommodations in the Caribbean have also upgraded, adding luxurious amenities, fine dining and world-class spas. As a result of the enhancements, the number of available rooms in the destination grew by 1.6 percent in 2015, and average daily rates increased by 4.6 percent to an estimated $229.
“Lifestyle-oriented Caribbean resorts continue to reimagine and reinvent themselves, evolving their products with new features and services to court travelers,” Lee said. “These include family-friendly resorts with waterparks and spacious properties that can accommodate large and extended families, as well as chic and sophisticated adults-only resorts ideal for destination weddings and honeymoons. The Caribbean offers a diverse breadth of options, ensuring that there truly is something for everyone here.”