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Is there any better place to get married than the Caribbean? It’s great for couples and for local business, discovers Joe Shooman

The sun smiles brightly one last time, and then begins its descent, dipping to the place where sky and sea meet and blend as one. The final rays paint the scene in the most romantic hues: cantaloupe orange, hot pink, burnished amber. Meanwhile, crystal-clear waters lap softly, kissing the porcelain sands with sighing waves of love. In this warm, wondrous moment, all kinds of magic seem possible. And as the sea sparkles in the dying light, so too do the eyes of the couple – the newly married couple – standing there, holding hands, silhouetted against another majestic Caribbean sunset. For them, the world is suspended, quotidian worries banished, stress forgotten, everyday life a million miles away. None of it matters to these two souls melded together in an eternal present. Beauty is everywhere – love is real…

Devotion and dollars
It’s easy to wax lyrical about Caribbean weddings. What could be more dreamy than exchanging your vows here? Destination weddings are an increasingly popular choice – and rightly so: a recent Travel Market Report study found that couples who travel to marry are more satisfied with their celebrations than those who marry close to home.

It’s not just the satisfaction – it’s also the bottom line. A destination wedding can work out significantly cheaper than a domestic do. The Knot 2017 Real Weddings Study found that the price-tag of an average wedding in the US was $33,391, while DestinationWeddings.com found that the average destination wedding cost just US$7,804. Similarly, the average Brit spends £27,161 on a wedding at home (according to hitched.co.uk), while a destination wedding costs around £7,500 (Kuoni).

Sari Skalnik, Puerto Rico-based Master Wedding Planner and member of the Association of Bridal Consultants, strikes a note of caution: “Most people think a destination wedding is less expensive, but that is not always the case. Costs can quickly spiral to fit the budget available. And sometimes what a couple envisions and what they can afford are very, very different.” But if you take control, you could end up not only with a good deal but also with a better experience. “Because destination weddings are more intimate, you can really take the money you have for your wedding and create a full weekend for your guests to experience,” Skalnik adds.

There are many elements to any wedding – from hotel rooms and catering to flowers, dresses and receptions – and those in the Caribbean are no different. Organising all this remotely from a different country is nigh-on impossible. That’s where wedding planners come in.

“We handle everything for our couples, from finding the perfect setting to creating the dream team of wedding professionals,” Skalnik explains. “We handle all the issues that our couples can’t. Many don’t even have a chance to visit before their wedding. Our motto is that the only thing our couples should worry about is saying ‘I do’. Let us handle all the details so that you get to fully experience your wedding.”

Love is all around
Destination weddings are a big deal for the Caribbean’s tourism sector, says Hugh Riley, Secretary-General and CEO of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “Every couple wants their first wedding to be their only one, and to be super special,” he says. “One way to make that big day truly memorable is to choose a Caribbean location for the wedding.”

Destinations across the LIAT network offer a variety of heart-stopping potential wedding locations. That might be under a flower-covered gazebo or surrounded by the history of Nelson’s Dockyard on Antigua. It might be amid the tropical beauty of Puerto Rico or US Virgin Islands – especially handy for American couples, who won’t need visas. It might be at a charming plantation on St Kitts & Nevis, or on the deck of a yacht while sailing the British Virgin Islands or Grenadines. It might be barefoot on the sand on any one of the region’s beautiful beaches.

Holding a wedding in a magnificent setting not only makes it an unforgettable day for the couple and their guests. In these days of instant upload and social-media sharing, the ripples are felt almost instantly in terms of tourism. “Because the images of those memorable moments are widely shared, every Caribbean destination that hosts a wedding can reap the benefits of a media-enhanced global reputation,” explains Riley. “In addition, destination weddings can involve large parties of family and friends who often fall in love with the destination and return later for their own special occasions.”

Picking the moment
Taking note of potentially adverse weather is crucial when planning a wedding in the Caribbean. Hurricane season runs throughout the summer months, when conditions can be unpredictable. This can demand some seat-of-the-pants planning from even the most experienced organisers, as Hayxanair Hernández of Naya’s Idea, a Puerto Rico-based events coordinator, discovered. “One of my most challenging tasks was to set up an event in one and a half hours,” recalls Hernández. “Due to weather issues the wedding had to be moved to a closed venue, but the bride’s wish was to have an outdoor wedding. The only place available was in use – so, once that event finished, we had only 90 minutes to get everything set up and running. We made sure to fulfil the bride’s wishes.”

Skalnik adds that major weather events can have an effect on everybody involved in the industry.“[Demand] dropped a bit after Hurricanes Irma and Maria slammed [Puerto Rico] but it has been making a comeback,” she says. Bookings have not just stabilised but are thriving; Skalnik says she now has “more requests than ever”.

Some months are particularly popular – around Easter, June and Christmas – but destination weddings can drive year-round business. “With our peak season ending in April, the arrival of people into the destination for weddings during the shoulder season helps boost our arrival figures over this typically slow period,” says Maria Blackman of the Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority. “The busiest periods for destination weddings are between March and June, primarily as it is after the peak season; flight and hotel costs are lower, more rooms are available, and the weather is also warmer than in the markets from where our visitors come.”

Resilient romance
Skalnik has faced some challenging situations, too. “Smaller weddings can be arranged in as little as three days, and I once planned a 50-person wedding in two weeks from beginning to end,” she recalls. But these situations are not the norm. Planning for the big day can take a significant amount of effort: according to the Destination Weddings Travel Group 2018 report, the average planning time for a destination wedding, from engagement to big day, is 14 months. “We typically advise clients to plan at least a year in advance,” advises Khaleen Johnson of Hangers Weddings, Grenada. “This minimises the chances of losing their preferred vendors, which could result in settling for a vendor that may not be right for them.”

This emphasis on early planning makes for a happy accommodation industry: hoteliers can lock in chunks of occupancy – maybe 10, 20 or 30-plus room bookings in one go – well in advance. Discounts on group bookings are often offered, which keeps the bridal party equally happy. Indeed, competition can be fierce for couples’ business, which can lead to all sorts of deals being offered.

“Hotels view destination weddings as superb opportunities to display the finest service and the best features of the property,” says Riley. “What a compliment it is for any hotel to be selected as the venue for a once-in-a-lifetime event. Destination weddings tend to be booked well in advance, allowing the venue plenty of time for proper planning of the multiple details involved.”

These factors also go toward making the industry very resilient to macroeconomic factors, Riley adds. “Research indicates that destination weddings and honeymoons are somewhat recession-proof. Couples budget for these events and often spare no expense in making that special occasion truly extraordinary.”

But whether you want to blow the budget or do things on the cheap, the Caribbean remains a spectacular setting for any wedding. Riley is proud of the region’s status and confident in what it can offer. “The reason why the Caribbean is the primary choice for destination weddings is the fact that it has developed a well-earned reputation for being exotic, romantic and photo-friendly,” he explains. “Whether the choice is a traditional religious setting, a stunning beach or anything in between, a couple and their wedding party can be guaranteed a backdrop that will add immensely to the importance of the occasion. A truly romantic occasion deserves a romantic venue like the Caribbean.”

…Night falls. The wedding party moves toward the ballroom, where a lilting calypso band is striking up. The time for quiet contemplation is over: there’s a party to start, glasses to chink, good food to devour, fun to be had. On this most special of evenings, there will be happy tears, laughter, hugs, dances and stammering/terrible/hilarious speeches. And there will be countless memories made of this special time and this special place, which the happy couple will treasure forever, and to where the guests might plan to return themselves one day soon…

Nuptial know-how

Take note of several factors you should consider well in advance

• Work out your budget and stick to it. It’s easy to get carried away.
• Nail your guest list. Who will you invite? How many people? And will you be paying some, all or none of their travel costs?
• Timing is important for destination weddings. Peak holiday periods will be more in demand. Off-peak and shoulder seasons may be cheaper, but keep a close eye on the weather you’re likely to encounter.
• Early planning is essential: start your preparation a year in advance – if not more – and ensure that you have any required deposits available.
• Ensure your chosen wedding planner is reputable. Research online and ask for testimonials from past clients. What insurance do they offer? What payment plans?
• Be aware of local laws and customs to avoid any nasty surprises. Same-sex weddings, for example, may be ceremonial rather than legal in some territories, and even illegal in others.
• Find out what you need in terms of identification and documentation – visas, passports, birth certificates, etc – so that the marriage licence can be ratified properly.
• Find out if there are other requirements. For instance, will you need blood tests? What is the minimum residency (on-island time) pre-ceremony? What advance notice do you have to give for banns? What fees are involved in the process?
• If possible, visit your wedding destination well before the big day so you can check out venues, vendors, entertainment options, transportation and locations. This can be done alone or with a wedding planner.
• It’s not just about the big day itself – consider what else the destination has to offer before deciding where to wed. What will you do before/after the ceremony? Are there opportunities for snorkelling, diving or trekking? Is there good nightlife?
• Decide what time of day you want to get married. Twilight is popular for its photographic potential. Weather is cooler before 11am and after 4pm. But how about a breakfast wedding, then a day on the beach?

Unusual weddings
1 Underwater
Divers can exchange rings underwater, and say their vows with com-units in their masks or written on dive slates. You could even charter the Atlantis Submarine in Barbados and tour through the coral reefs as the captain officiates.

2 Surf ’n’ Turf
How about getting married at the beach and then having the celebration in the mountains? Great for maxing the photo opportunities.

3 Pirate
Themed weddings are popular, and going a bit Jack Sparrow is particularly region-appropriate. Wave cutlasses while you wed aboard an actual galleon, courtesy of St Lucia’s Sea Spray Cruise.

4 Sustainable
Make your union eco-friendly. Ask about your chosen venue’s environmental practices – the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism advises hotels on practicalities. Or opt for a truly green setting, such as the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad.

5 Free
Shop around and you can find some great deals. Some hotels will even give you a basic wedding package – usually including elements such as ceremony, venue, cake and basic decorations – for free if you stay there for a certain length of time.

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