Can you hear it?
That’s the sound of people celebrating throughout the Caribbean.
To keep the party going there is much to be done by all the tourism stakeholders.
As Caribbean growth continues to explode tourism experts are constantly evaluating the drivers and barriers?
As the Caribbean prepares to celebrate a record-breaking arrivals landmark,
Rob Gill took a deep breath and reports on the latest developments in the region.
The Caribbean is set to break through the 30 million arrivals milestone for the first time as many of the region’s most popular destinations are on course to enjoy a record-breaking 2016 for visitor numbers.
This comes on the back of last year’s record of 28.7 million tourists visiting the Caribbean, which was itself a 7% rise from 2014.
The Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) said that 2016 figures so far had been “pacing ahead” of the same months last year.
The CTO has been predicting an overall increase of 4.5-5-5% for the entire year.
The Dominican Republic, the Caribbean’s number one destination for holidaymakers, welcomed 3.7 million arrivals between January and July – an increase of 6.9% over the same period in 2015.
It was boosted by a 5% increase in arrivals from Europe, including a 24% rise in the number of Russian visitors.
Other Caribbean destinations to enjoy a successful year include Jamaica, which saw a 2.5% rise in tourist arrivals to 1.14 million for the first six months of 2016, while cruise passenger visits increased by 14.2% to 950,000.
This has put the island on course to beat the four million milestone for the first time – Jamaica welcomed 3.7 million tourists in 2015.
The island has been boosted by increased flights and cruise arrivals during the summer.
The UK’s favourite destination, Barbados, also increased visitor numbers by 5.6% to 321,000 in the first half of 2016.
The British market accounts for 36% of all international arrivals to the island and this grew by 3% to 115,000 between January and June.
The US is the second most important market with 26% of all arrivals over the same period.
Other areas to enjoy double-digit growth this year include Antigua & Barbuda – up by 9.9%, Guyana – up by 15.7%, and Turks & Caicos – up by 18.5%.
What the challenges facing the industry as 2017 is knocking at the collective doors around the Caribbean?
Despite these record-breaking figures, there are still challenges for the Caribbean destinations with perennial issues such as limited airlift, particularly between islands, alongside intense competition from other long-haul markets such as the Gulf states and the Far East.
There have also been regional issues such as the Zika virus and the potential fallout from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.
Obie Wilchcombe, the new chairman of the CTO, said that despite an increase in the number of flights and arrivals, the region’s hotels have seen a decline in occupancy levels and average room rates in 2016, which he said was a “concern” and could be linked to the increased number of hotel rooms.
“We also believe it might have something to do with shared-occupancy accommodation, so we have to look at what is causing this particular peculiar circumstance,” added Wilchcombe during a press conference at the CTO’s State of the Industry Conference in Barbados.
The growth of sharing economy providers, such as Airbnb, is also a concern for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA).
The association’s president Karolin Troubetzkoy said that the industry needed to “open our eyes to the bigger picture, which is so important if we want to succeed, not only as individual businesses and destinations but also as a region”.
Troubetzkoy added that the traditional hotel industry in the Caribbean “must be prepared to understand shifting consumer motivations and find creative ways to make the sharing economy work to its advantage”.
The CHTA published The Caribbean Sharing Economy Resource Guide earlier this year as part of its efforts to help create “a level playing field” through the taxation and regulation of this emerging type of holiday accommodation.
But, like Dylan said, ” … the times they are a changing …” and that’s true in the blue waters of the Caribbean.
The other significant change in the region is the reintroduction of scheduled flights between the US and Cuba after a gap of more than 50 years.
But the big question alongside Cuba’s expected growth is how this will affect the other destinations in the Caribbean.
It is early days so far with direct flights only resuming in late August and US travellers are still not officially allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism.
“We have to ask what effect the opening of Cuba to US travellers will have on the rest of the Caribbean. How will we deal with the shift of more American travellers going to Cuba and how will we make up for that?” said the CHTA’s Troubetzkoy.
In a report on the subject, the CHTA said that the Cuban situation could act as “a wake-up call” for many destinations to “elevate their game and become more competitive”.
According to the CTO, Brexit has not had any noticeable effect on travel between the UK and the Caribbean in the past few months. CTO president Obie Wilchcombe said the only impact so far has been the decline in the value of the pound against the US dollar and UK arrivals have continued to rise. The Brexit situation is being “monitored” by the CTO.
Hugh Riley, secretary general of the CTO, added: “There really is no status quo in the tourism sector. Things are constantly changing; it’s a dynamic industry – it’s vulnerable to external shocks but it always recovers.
When we look at issues that affect public health, security, terrorism, economic shocks, all of these things affect the success and the sustainability of the tourism sector.”
In a longer-term move, the CTO and CHTA have signed an agreement to join other regional agencies to help develop an early-warning system to provide “tailored climate information” to the tourism industry to help it become more resilient to the potential impact of climate change.
“Our sector is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate, and we are committed to being proactive in ensuring Caribbean tourism is more resilient,” said Troubetzkoy.
Flights and taxes are under scrutiny. While the Caribbean tourism industry fought a long – and ultimately successful – attempt to reduce the amount of Air Passenger Duty paid by holidaymakers travelling from the UK, the issue of high aviation taxes continues to be a problem.
Airline organisation Iata has identified 130 ticket taxes across the wider Latin America and Caribbean region. These include Jamaica’s departure tax, which has been increased by 150% this year from $14 to $35pp.
World Tourism and Travel Council president David Scowsill has added to the calls for Caribbean governments to remove aviation taxes as well as easing visa restrictions.
“Taxation is far too high in Caribbean aviation,” he said. “It is not quite as high as APD in the UK, but something has to be done in this region because these taxes are detrimental to GDP (gross domestic product) and people seeking to travel across the region.”
During the summer 2016 season, the Dominican Republic had the largest scheduled airline capacity in the Caribbean with more than four million seats – although this is set to change after the reintroduction of US-Cuba flights in August.
Cuba had been ranked third for capacity this summer with Puerto Rico in second place, followed by the Bahamas, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago.
One thing is certain. The record setting number of visitors will trigger a lot of champagne corks this New Years Eve as the industry celebrates a historic 2016.