Last updated: 01:00 AM ET, Thu June 02 2016

Caribbean Hoteliers Look To Cuba Following Challenging Winter Season

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | June 02, 2016

Caribbean Hoteliers Look To Cuba Following Challenging Winter Season

PHOTO: Caribbean destinations report first-quarter 2016 occupancy declines following a record 2015. (Photo by Brian Major).

Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) officials are working with Cuba’s government to help create the country’s first hotel and tourism association, said Frank Comito, CHTA’s chief executive. The Cuba initiative is one of several programs CHTA is launching to address what has to date been a challenging season for Caribbean hoteliers.

One year after posting visitor growth of seven percent, out-pacing the global market, many Caribbean hotels and resorts report first-quarter occupancy declines following unusual challenges throughout the 2016 winter season, traditionally the region’s peak travel period.

Bookings were impacted by disparate factors ranging from travelers’ concerns regarding the Zika virus to competition from Brazil’s upcoming Olympic Games to a relatively mild U.S. winter and the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Although a May study from travel research firm STR attributes a three percent year-to-date decline in first-quarter 2016 Caribbean hotel bookings almost solely to travelers’ Zika virus concerns, perhaps no issue has been more prominent for Caribbean destinations than Cuba’s increasing prominence among American vacationers following the Obama administration’s travel liberalization policies.

Already among the most-visited Caribbean destinations, officials in other regional destinations increasingly view Cuba as a strong competitor for U.S. leisure travelers. In fact Cuba’s surging popularity is the primary reason CHTA is offering to provide its expertise to assist the island’s fledgling U.S. tourism push, said Comito.

“Cuba has created a great disruption for the good of the Caribbean,” he said Monday at a gathering of media in New York for the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO)’s Caribbean Week program.

READ MORE: Jamaican Tourism Pact with Cuba Looks To Leverage 'Critical Mass'

“At the ground level, the destination level, the real heavy lifting has started. We’re looking for coordination and collaboration,” said Comito. “It’s a two-way kind of thing. They can feed us issues or information they think is important for the region and we can share that among the various national hotel and tourism associations,” he said.

CHTA officials including Comito, Karolin Troubetzkoy, CHTA’s president, and Matt Cooper, the agency’s chief marketing officer, held discussions with Cuban government and tourism officials in Havana in May. “Often if there is a challenge for one destination, other destinations have those challenges as well,” said Comito. “We can help problem-solve and send it down to the national hotel and tourism organizations.”

Cooper emphasized that while some restrictions for Americans visiting Cuba have been liberalized, the prevailing “people-to-people” model still requires educational interaction. Coupled with the island’s comparatively poor infrastructure, absence of credit-card transactions, and even the limited access to beaches for vacationers, he said the country is at a disadvantage versus other Caribbean leisure destinations.

“Cuba is a bucket-list destination,” said Cooper. “It’s not an easy beach destination and there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed.” Whereas other Caribbean destinations “lead with beach, sun and sand,” Cuba has, from necessity, emphasized its culture and history, he said. That orientation has challenged Caribbean destinations to focus more attention on their own distinct cultural and historic attractions, Cooper added.

Beyond Cuba, Caribbean hotels, resorts and destinations have most fiercely battled traveler wariness regarding the Zika virus, the CHTA officials said. Caribbean organizations including the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) have launched initiatives including a recent “Mosquito Awareness Week” to halt the disease’s spread and inform residents of prevention measures.

READ MORE: Will Cuba’s Rise Obscure Other Caribbean Destinations?

Troubetzkoy, whose St. Lucia-based resorts Jade Mountain and Anse Chastanet are among the best-known Caribbean luxury resorts, said the STR report’s claim that the Zika virus was behind declining first-quarter hotel occupancy is an oversimplification.

“Caribbean hotels and destinations faced a mild winter and currency issues in Canada and the U.K.,” she said. “Also evidence from past years has shown that bookings are impacted when there is a presidential election or an Olympic Games. It’s incorrect to attribute [occupancy declines] to one factor. ”

In addition to the talks with Cuba, Cooper said CHTA officials have discussed marketing programs to promote the entire Caribbean region. “We have been out there for years, every island doing its own things,” he said.

“But the presidential election, the tough winter, the Zika virus and other factors have really messed with our numbers,” Cooper said. “It’s no [surprise] there has been a call for a regional tourism association in what has been less successful year.”

CHTA’s response has also included the creation of programs that establish the agency as a regional employment, educational and marketing resource. This week the agency announced a strategic partnership with hotel industry cloud platform firm SiteMinder to provide its member with “channel management” services as well as online distribution and revenue optimization strategies.

Cooper said the firm will coordinate educational sessions at CHTA’s Caribbean Hospitality Industry Exchange Forum (CHIEF) and Caribbean Travel Marketplace conferences, sharing industry best practices and trend data.

"CHTA members have a terrific opportunity, over the forthcoming year, to learn from the known leaders in our market and grow their expertise in channel management," said Cooper.

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