A few weeks ago I was in the Dominican Republic. I had been at business meetings and was travelling on to London. As there is no direct air service to the UK and I wanted to avoid the time consuming and frustrating experience of transiting Miami, I decided to travel via Punta Cana, on a British Airways service which, although routed via Antigua, significantly reduced my journey time.
For those who have not visited Punta Cana or its neighbour, Bavaro, they are for the most part two mass market destinations receiving around 2.5m visitors a year, mainly at all-inclusive properties located on wide and long white sand beaches.
At the airport what was particularly interesting was the very large numbers of Russian visitors waiting to depart for Moscow, something I have not observed at any other Caribbean airport.
What rapidly became apparent on exploring further was that Russia was fast becoming one of the major sources of visitors for that country.
According to Dominican statistics, 158,415 Russian visitors arrived in 2012, making it now the country’s fourth leading source market for tourism after the US, Canada and France.
The rate of growth is phenomenal: up by 35 per cent last year and expected to rise by around 51 per cent this year, according to the Dominican tourism industry. At present, there are twelve Russian flights a week arriving into Punta Cana: Transaero from Moscow and St Petersburg (eight a week; Aeroflot from St Petersburg (two a week); and Orenair from Moscow (two a week); with charters also coming from St Petersburg, Moscow and Ekaterinburg.
What was particularly interesting, based on personal observations and from reviewing the statistics, is that Russian visitors fit the profile of those most sought after by the Caribbean.
They are mostly aged between 25 and 45, come from an educated, upper upper-middle class demographic, and have high purchasing power, as evidenced from the designer label shop bags they were carrying, interestingly indicating in Russian, in many cases, the names of local Dominican stores and supermarkets.
What is particularly startling is how suddenly this has happened. Until two years ago, Cuba was the only Caribbean destination for Russian visitors (76,500 arrivals in 2012) but now, so rapidly have Russian arrival numbers in the Dominican Republic increased, that Russia has already overtaken Germany as a source market and may soon do the same in relation to those from France.
According to Radhames Martínez Aponte, a vice minister at the Ministry of Tourism this is a direct result of a huge investment in tourism promotion in Russia as a part of a drive to develop new source markets.
In the Anglophone Caribbean, Jamaica, so far, is the only nation actively courting Russian tourists with a twice weekly service on Transaero into Montego Bay.
However, if airlift can be secured, Russia would appear to be a market set to grow dramatically for the region as a whole; especially when present travellers from its major cities begin to move away from the mass market experience, start to seek different types of properties and locations in other Caribbean destinations, and can be offered, probably in their own language, shopping and an up-scale experience.