Visitors to the Caribbean hit a record level in 2016, with 29.3 million traveling to the region, the Caribbean Tourism Organization reported Thursday. The report marks the seventh year of consecutive growth.
At 4.2 percent growth, overall tourist arrivals to the Caribbean region surpassed the global average of 3.9 percent. Cruise ships brought 26.3 million to the region and reported 1.3 percent growth.
Expenditures also hit a high, growing 3.5 percent and reaching US$35.5 billion.
The announcement came on the same day that major winter storms provoked 3,000 flight cancellations out of the United States, highlighting the instability often provoked by uncontrollable forces.
“What we sell is excellent weather but we certainly want when you have your foul weather to be able to leave and come to the Caribbean region,” said Caribbean Tourism Organization Secretary General Hugh Riley during a press conference.
He noted growth rates were variable across the region, ranging from declines in a fifth of Caribbean countries to 17.5 percent growth in Turks and Caicos Islands. Twenty-two Caribbean countries reported growth.
Cayman Islands tourism held steady, with air arrivals increasing 0.2 percent to 385,451 passengers, the Ministry of Tourism reported in January. Cruise ship arrivals dropped slightly to 1.7 million passengers.
While the hotel sector showed negative growth across the region, several hotel properties in the Cayman Islands earned the distinction of TripAdvisor 2017 Travelers’ Choice Best Hotel Awards. Recognized properties include Southern Cross Club in Little Cayman, Caribbean Club on Seven Mile Beach and Turtle Nest Inn in Bodden Town.
Despite the record-setting numbers across the region, arrivals fell short of the 30-million visitor goal set by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
Mr. Riley said a weak Canadian dollar, an active hurricane season and political uncertainty damped travel prospects.
Conference Board of Canada senior researcher Jennifer Hendry said a blow to Canada’s exchange rate early in 2016 influenced travel prospects throughout the year.
“There has definitely been a drop in market share, not just in the Caribbean, but to other destinations as well,” she said.
She added that the Baby Boomer market is trending toward “bucket-list” destinations and venturing toward non-traditional travel destinations.
Canada’s market share in Caribbean travel was expected to stabilize but not recover in 2017. At the end of 2016, it represented 11.4 percent of regional travelers.
Despite political instability, European travelers brought the greatest growth, climbing 11 percent to 5.6 million arrivals. Travel from the United Kingdom grew 4.1 percent and Germany grew 8.2 percent.
With Brexit on the horizon, Mr. Riley said, it was difficult to predict the impact on tourism.
Nikki White of the Association of British Travel Agents said there is an environment of uncertainty and caution out of the U.K.
Regardless, she said, a quarter of the British have indicated they are willing spend more this year on vacations. Early bookings of all-inclusive packages have remained up.
Interregional travel grew 3.6 percent but continued to be damped by high costs, security concerns, legal issues, and difficult traveler experience, Mr. Riley said.
“We are very interested in traveling around our region. We are also showing our high tolerance level that traveling around the region is not as simple and inexpensive as it could be,” he said.
Regional collaboration to improve ease of travel will be a priority moving forward, he added.
With a new administration in the United States, the top driver of tourism to the region, Caribbean Tourism Organization Director of Research Ryan Skeete said the organization is keeping a modest growth forecast.
“It’s a little bit unpredictable, so that increases uncertainty about what [the president] will do and to what extent. We’re uncertain how that will impact tourism. A lot of things can happen that would affect the whole outlook, like increased protectionism,” Mr. Skeete said.
The U.S. continues to represent half of arrivals to the Caribbean and numbers from the country grew 3.5 percent in 2016, driven by a strong economy and low unemployment.
The Caribbean Tourism Organization anticipates 2.5 to 3.5 percent overall growth to the Caribbean in 2017.
Growth drivers to the region included 26 new cruise ship vessels with a combined capacity of 300,000 passengers, and investment in infrastructure projects.