A year of recovery and new challenges

Looking back, 2015 will probably be seen as the year in which the tourism industry in the Caribbean experienced a much awaited full recovery from the slow growth it has suffered, ever since the 2008 global recession.

Although the year end arrivals figures, and the more important measures of yield and occupancy, are unlikely to be available until early next year, it is clear that virtually every Caribbean tourism destination saw real growth in long stay and cruise sector arrivals and expenditure in 2015.

According to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), in the first six months of 2015 the region welcomed 14.8m visitors or approximately 5.8% more than in the corresponding period in 2014, and has said it expects the year to end with an overall growth figure in the region of 5-6% higher than last year.

2015 also saw an increase in the airlift provided by many existing carriers, with newer names in aviation such as Jet Blue coming to regard the region as a major growth area. Although this was predominantly out of the United States, the arrival of new services from Latin America enabled a number of nations including Jamaica and Barbados to develop promotional activity in anticipation of establishing new long-term feeder markets.

Further afield, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia began to show real promise but this was to some extent offset by a decline in overall Russian visitor arrivals into the region as US sanctions caused a recession in that country’s economy and its airlines and tour operators experienced related difficulties. 2015 was also a year in which much was said about Chinese tourism, but the number of visitors who materialised remained very low.

That said, perhaps the biggest single new development in regional tourism, the ultimate dimensions of which are still unclear, was the emergence of Cuba as a Caribbean destination for US visitors.

Although for US citizens wishing to travel there remain constrained by US legislation, the decision by President Obama to normalise relations in December 2014 and allow freer travel saw visitor numbers from the US surge. This taken together with a rapid increase in arrivals from traditional markets in Europe and Canada wishing to see the island ‘before it changes’, saw overall arrivals grow by numbers that the rest of the region can only dream about; so much so that by the end of October Cuba reported that total visitor numbers over the first nine months had increased 17.6% to 3.1m.

2015 was also the year in which two very different kind of tourism related issues emerged.

In the Bahamas the unfinished US$2.5 billion mega resort, Baha Mar, went into receivership causing not only problems for the US developer, the Chinese Bank and construction company concerned and the Bahamas government, but also resulted in a major economic setback for the island.  The issue, which still has to be resolved, raised difficult region-wide questions about the dangers for any small country in entering into agreements on too-big-to-fail projects.

During the year, another quite different problem emerged: Sargassum Seaweed. This spread across the region for reasons that are still unclear but were probably related to a rise in sea temperatures and consequential changes in sea currents. The result was that many of the most beautiful beaches in the region were rendered unattractive by piles of foul-smelling seaweed that short of burying or removing it, no government has yet any long term answer for.

More generally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the same old problems continued. In particular, high levels of tourism taxation in air fares for everything from departures to security made inter-regional tourism – once a significant part of the Caribbean industry – unattractive, raising in the process questions about the whether island hopping or multi-destination travel could ever be made attractive to overseas visitors.

Institutionally 2015 was a much better year for the region. The key regional private sector tourism institution, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) changed its leadership and a new Executive Director moved rapidly to ensure that the organisation would again play a central role.

But alarmingly at a global level it was the year in which it became apparent that new challenges were emerging for an industry more used to selling dreams. In 2015 terrorism and refugees became an issue touching the industry in a number of nations in a manner that few could have predicted; although thankfully the Caribbean remained and remains safe and vigilant.