Survive, revive, thrive

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The Caribbean is the most tourism dependent region in the world, so what does 2018 hold for this most vital of industries – especially in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria? Joe Shooman investigates

Ever resilient, Caribbean tourism can rebound quickly and confidently from even the most damaging of blows. At least, that’s what industry insiders want to shout from the rooftops as we enter 2018.

Last year’s hurricane season was one of the most devastating ever, leaving several of our beautiful islands in tatters and causing loss of life and livelihood. However, as those islanders emerge from the wreckage, the tourism industry is united in its main message: the Caribbean remains open for business.

After the storm
Last summer, things were looking positive for the future of Caribbean tourism. Visitation to the region grew by 5.2% January-June 2017, compared with the same period the year before. In 2016, the total contribution of the industry to the region’s GDP was US$56.4 billion (14.9% of GDP), and a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council in early 2017 predicted this to rise by 3.6% per annum, increasing to US$83.3 billion (17.7% of GDP) in 2027.

Future tourism trends such as this are always hot topics at the annual State of the Industry conference, at which delegates from both the public and private tourism sectors gather to discuss the latest trends. However, the 2017 event was held in Grenada in mid-October – in the shadow of hurricanes Irma and Maria – so the main focus shifted. And the outlook for 2018 has shifted with it.

One positive to come from the ferocious storms and ensuing chaos was the display of solidarity, says Joy Jibrilu, Chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO). “Amid the adversity came a renewed spirit of partnership. Cruise lines, the media, the hotel sector and governments all came together with a single goal in mind: to help the affected recover.”

In order to ensure closer cooperation between islands, a Global Caribbean Tourism Recovery Team has been established, comprising representatives of many worldwide organisations including the United Nations. It’s hoped that this will improve communication between islands and the public in future, as well as overseeing a recovery team that will help tourism bounce back strongly, by rebuilding both facilities and trust.

Rise and rise again
Another key focus of strategy for 2018 is to remind potential travellers that the Caribbean region is larger and more diverse than many might think. “The distance between Barbados and Belize is more than six times as great as Toronto to Montréal,” Jibrilu points out.

“Let us use the power of the Caribbean brand to convince discerning visitors that the way to enhance their own lives is to take full advantage of the uniquely enjoyable vacation experiences this region has to offer, knowing full well that the best way to help the Caribbean is to visit the Caribbean,” says Hugh Riley, Secretary-General of the CTO, who also insists that the region will “fight through the pain and rise again”.

Travel Leaders Group, a US-based company with 40,000 affiliated travel agents, has announced its partnership with the CTO to create a One Caribbean Family Ambassador campaign. This will provide the agents with resources, information and customer awareness tool kits to market the destinations of the region effectively. “With our broad network of travel agents we are going to amplify the messages from the Caribbean tourism industry that 70% of Caribbean destinations have not been impacted by the storms,” says CEO Ninan Chacko. “Travel Leaders Group will also help jumpstart the recovery of the other destinations when they complete their rebuilding efforts.”

New markets
Barbados saw a 7.4% increase in growth for the January-September 2017 period year-on-year compared with 2016. There was a 16% increase in the number of visitors from the United States – the biggest rise – followed by a 12% increase in visitors from Canada. Indeed, Canada is being touted as a potentially lucrative market for the Caribbean, for 2018 and beyond. Stats indicate that the Donald Trump factor is making almost half of Canadian travellers unlikely to visit the United States, according to the Canadian Tourism Research Institute’s Jennifer Hendry. There’s a chance to attract the ‘silver dollar’, too, if Caribbean businesses offer the right experiences. “The older generation of holidaymakers from Canada is much more active now,” says Hendry, “and they outnumber those aged 14 and under for the first time.”

China also presents a big, currently unexploited market for the region. Chris Spring of China Ni Hao, an American marketing company, suggests that tourism bodies in the Caribbean should provide online information in Chinese languages. Currently the Caribbean’s profile in the Far East is negligible; it would help if industry representatives could add Chinese-speaking staff to their offering, says Spring. The increasing number of Chinese students in the United States also offers a potential tourism target.

Chinese investment into the region looks set to increase, too. There are reports that an unnamed company is interested in underwriting the rebuilding of properties in Barbuda. A new town has been proposed that would include supermarkets, chemists, cinemas and many stores, all of which would be resistant to winds of up to 200m/h.

Hotel buzz
The Caribbean’s accommodation offering will continue to be key to increasing visitor numbers in 2018. “It’s really [all down to] the growth of rooms and the growth of air capacity,” says William Griffith, CEO of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. “One follows the other.”

As such, hotel development continues apace across the region, with luxury set to be at the forefront. For instance, in 2018 St Lucia’s Reduit Beach will become home to Curio by Hilton, a five-star resort, plus a Hilton hotel. Altogether this will provide 500 new rooms on the island – a big step towards St Lucia’s plans to enhance its room capacity by 2,000 for 2021. Sandals is also planning a fourth resort on the island, with a 330-room, luxury-targeted Sandals LaSource under construction.

Early 2018 will see the opening of the new Silversands resort at Grand Anse Beach, Grenada. As well as 43 suites, nine villas, a beach club and a restaurant serving local food, it will boast what’s billed as the longest pool in the Caribbean. Silversands will be the 11th property in the Caribbean for The Leading Hotels of the World consortium, joining facilities in the Dominican Republic, St Vincent, Antigua and beyond.

Alongside the rise of high-end properties, 2018 will also see the continuing growth of the ‘sharing economy’. Increasing numbers of travellers are seeking a more authentic (and often cheaper) experience that places them in the midst of local life, so will continue to consider short-term holiday lets run by private individuals, bookable online via sites such as Airbnb.

As a result, a raft of unique apartments, rooms and properties are now available. There were over 41,000 Caribbean listings on the site in 2017, and that number is increasing all the time. According to Airbnb, each host earned an average of US$4,000 a year, putting cash directly into the hands of local people.

The green economy
Ecotourism will remain as vital as ever to the success of the industry, reckons the CTO’s Hugh Riley: “For visitors, Caribbean tourism awakens a consciousness of the beauty of, and a respect for, Mother Earth; for locals, the industry offers a chance at social and economic development and a global perspective through exposure to world cultures.” This exchange of ideas, knowledge and, of course, cash is sustainability in a nutshell.

As such, the focus on being ‘green’ continues to grow. For example, Martinique plays on the fact that two-thirds of the island is now protected, and offers activities such as hiking, kayaking and horseback riding as eco-friendly ways to commune with nature. There are many voluntourism activities available across the region, too. For example, on St Kitts visitors can join beach clean-ups or help out on a project turning the old sugar railway into a hiking and biking trail. Examples such as this look set to inspire more ecotourism innovations in the future.

There is also a growing trend toward the ‘blue economy’, based around taking care of coastal and marine environments and exploring clean/renewable energy sources. For instance, the Caribbean Challenge is a big project backed by The Nature Conservancy, with the goal that member countries – including St Vincent, St Lucia, Grenada and Antigua – must protect 20% of their marine and coastal habitats by 2020. Well-managed waters not only mean healthy, diverse seas but also a more enticing tourism product. Some innovative islands are killing two birds with one stone by turning the vital eradication of the red lionfish into a tourist activity. In places such as Guadeloupe, Grenada and Puerto Rico, it’s possible to join dive trips on which you help hunt the invasive species.

Of course, in 2018 there will be projects seeking extra help. A year’s worth of research undertaken at the St Martin/St Maarten Nature Foundation coral nursery was destroyed by Hurricane Irma. However, already there are opportunities for travellers to volunteer here, assisting in everything from turtle protection to cleaning damaged beaches.

Looking forward not back
As 2018 dawns, the tourism sector is focused on the future. “The spirit of our people remains unwavering as we look determinedly towards recovery,” says Hugh Riley. “Host communities and businesses are ready to receive visitors and deliver the welcoming smiles, kind hospitality and tropical warmth for which the region has gained renown.”

And that’s what it’s all about. The region’s optimism in the wake of such a heartbreaking hurricane season is testament to the creativity and commitment of the islands that make up the eternally tempting Caribbean. The future, like the sun that so readily shines on the region, promises to be bright indeed.

Tourism and technology

Sun, sea… and software? Here are some of the tech developments that promise to revolutionise the way we travel

01 The virtual concierge
Edwardian Hotels’ guest management service, a chatbot named Edward, can interact with travellers to allow them to order food, book taxis and more.

02 The PA app
Lola, launched by Kayak co-founder Paul English, is an app that is designed to simplify travel and accommodation booking as well as provide updates on your journey. Users can access real-life customer service professionals who can help with all aspects of a trip.

03 The AI assistant
Tensator’s touchscreen Virtual Assistant, already in use in some airports, incorporates artificial intelligence that is able to deal with queries from passengers as well as helping to speed up flow of passengers through check-in desks.

04 Travel chatbots
An interactive ‘conversation’ option is becoming increasingly common on travel sites such as CheapFlights, Kayak and Skyscanner. Essentially, this messenger-style bot is able to respond to each traveller’s requests for travel information, and to suggest options for their potential bookings.

05 Undersea technology
The diving sector continues to push boundaries with advances in dive computer technology: some now incorporate Bluetooth, multi-gas analysis, digital compasses and increased underwater readability.

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