Statistics are helpful but require closer analysis

According to Hugh Riley, the Secretary General and CEO of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), visitor numbers, so far in 2016, are ahead of annual projections which had suggested that the region will see arrivals grow by four to five per cent.

Mr Riley also said in a recent message to mark Caribbean Tourism Month that the numbers build on visitor growth of around 7% last year at 28.7m arrivals and a visitor spend of over US$1 bn more than in 2014, contributing approximately US$30 bn to Caribbean economies.

This is of course all very good news for the region as a whole, and a clear demonstration of the industry’s long term resilience to challenges and its importance to regional economic growth.

However, a detailed review of the country variations using national reporting suggests that beyond the headline numbers, much closer attention needs to be paid by the media to issues ranging from the strength of the economies of feeder markets, product and marketing, pricing, exchange rates, and the amount retained by individual nations through taxes and the provision of input and services. According to CTO’s statistics in the first six months of this year, when compared to the same period in 2015, four destinations recorded significant increases in US arrivals (Grenada up by 26.2%; Belize 25.5%; Antigua 20.3%; and Barbados 13.1%) while for example Curaçao recorded a decrease. However, in contrast many Caribbean destinations struggled to achieve growth in the Canadian market with only Curaçao (6.7%) and Guyana (4.7%) recording significant increases, while sixteen of CTO’s 24 members reported decreases.

When it comes to cruise ship arrivals, big regional differences also appear.

Although in the first half of 2016, when compared with the same period in 2015, 13 countries recorded higher first-half cruise arrivals, 11 reported declines. For example, the Dominican Republic (up by 58.4%) and the British Virgin Islands (48.4%) recorded the largest increases, in part because of the launch of new cruise ports. But while Trinidad, Grenada, Martinique, Aruba, and Jamaica also posted double-digit cruise arrivals increases in the first half of this year, other countries showed significant declines. These included some previously strong destinations for cruising such as St Lucia and Puerto Rico, which respectively were down by 16.1% and 14.2%.

The matter becomes more complicated still when the nature of changes in arrivals is not clearly differentiated or explained.

For example, in the last few weeks the Aruba Tourism Authority has said that a part of the growth in its tourism sector over the last two years has been “fictitious”. In a recent report, it said that the surge in its Venezuelan arrivals did not reflect actual tourism, but those coming to collect foreign currency. It also suggested that despite its positive figures, tourism spending was declining, projecting a 4% fall in the number of arrivals this year, as well as a 2.6% drop in Revenue Per Available Room (RevPAR).

My suspicion is that not only will this problem apply to the large numbers of Venezuelans now arriving temporarily in Trinidad, Curaçao, Guyana and other parts of the region, but is also a
problem, albeit for different reasons, when it comes to recording Chinese visitors. Although such numbers have been increasing, the probability is that given the absence of same-plane air services from China to anywhere in the region other than Cuba, these visitors are not tourists, but those who are developing or working on the huge projects that China is now engaged in around the region. There are also other anomalies, for example with Cuba, which does not include Cuban born CubanAmericans in its visitor arrivals as it still regards them as Cuban citizens.

I note this not to be critical of CTO’s messaging about what is good regional news, but to suggest that there is a strong case for Caribbean media to ask more thoughtful questions about what they are being offered and report.