Last updated: 07:00 AM ET, Sat December 26 2015

Travel 2015: The Biggest Caribbean and Latin American Stories of the Year

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | December 26, 2015

Travel 2015: The Biggest Caribbean and Latin American Stories of the Year

Photo courtesy of Baha Mar

Despite their laid-back image, tourism developments in the Caribbean and Latin America developed at a rapid rate in 2015. The year was marked by expansion throughout the regions, with dozens of new hotels and resort projects opening and more new ones announced.

Regional destinations also launched a variety of cruise and land-based tourism infrastructure programs.

Predictably, there was also controversy in places like the Cayman Islands, where projects to expand resort and tourism facilities came under fire from environmentalists and other groups. Here’s a look at the top stories in the two regions in 2015.

The Battle for Baha Mar: Instead of launching its much-awaited inaugural season, the 97 percent complete, $3.5 billion Baha Mar spent the entire year vacant amidst a bitter insolvency battle that idled 2,000 Bahamian workers, ruined vacations for thousands of travelers, wrecked agreements with major hoteliers and tour operators, and riled the Bahamian and Chinese governments.

The project remains stalemated following the Bahamas Supreme Court’s recent delay on liquidation hearings, now scheduled to take place in February. Rumors of a takeover by a Sol Kerzner-led group emerged in November, but at present there is no resolution in sight for what the largest project in Bahamas history.

Dominican Republic’s tourism surge continues: Already the Caribbean’s number one destination in terms of annual visitors, travel to the Dominican Republic surged again in 2015. Arrivals grew 15 percent in October and were expected to grow by 10 percent for the year, said Francisco Javier Garcia, the country’s tourism minister, who during the year said the country’s tourism sector is at “the greatest moment in [its] history.”

Last year the Dominican Republic hosted 5.14 million overnight arrivals, a 9.6 percent increase over 2013 according to Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) data. The next-closest CTO-tracked countries, Cuba and Jamaica, hosted 3.0 million and 2.0 million visitors respectively.

The country is again on track to exceed 5 million overnight arrivals in 2015. By November the country had welcomed 4,592,854 arrivals, an 8.9 percent increase over 2014 according to data from the Central Bank of the Dominican Republic, which tracks visitor arrivals data.

JetBlue expands across the Caribbean and Latin America: The New York-based, low-cost airline continued its emergence as a dominant Caribbean and Latin American carrier. Jet Blue expanded flight service to several new cities in the Caribbean and Latin America in 2015, with company officials promising there’s more to come.

JetBlue launched new and expanded flights to Antigua, Barbados, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica in 2015. The company also premiered its Mint premium service on flights between both Boston and New York and Barbados. The airline will expand service between Curacao and New York with a third weekly flight next year.

JetBlue now serves 27 Caribbean airports, said Robin Hayes, the company’s CEO. The carrier added Quito, Ecuador to its Latin American itineraries this year; the company also serves Mexico City, Liberia and San Jose, Costa Rica; Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin, Colombia.  One-third of Jet Blue’s capacity is now devoted to Caribbean and Latin American cities. “These vibrant, unique communities are so critical to our success,” said Hayes.

Jet Blue also maintains codeshare agreements with regional airlines including Cape Air, LIAT, Silver Airways and Seaborne Airlines, which provide travelers with access to intra-Caribbean flights. “We’ve succeeded in places where our legacy competitors had maybe become a bit too complacent, and we’ve also built entirely new markets that had never been flown before,” added Hayes.

Green light for Cayman Islands cruise port plan: Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin shocked all sides in October when he bluntly announced the country would move forward with plans to build a $150 million cruise ship pier and passenger terminal. McLaughlin’s announcement, which came before the release of a consultant’s final report and official approval by his own cabinet, was indicative of the government’s support for the project from its outset.

Yet not all residents were similarly excited about the controversial plan, which calls for the construction of a pier and terminal in the harbor at Georgetown, the Cayman capital city. The long-planned project quickly evolved into a battle pitting the government and cruise-reliant tourism stakeholders against environmental activists and dive-oriented tour operators, who decried the project’s planned dredging of Georgetown harbor dive sites. 

Opposition intensified following this summer’s release of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) that found dredging would “have significant negative impacts on the marine ecology within George Town harbor, in particular the coral reefs and associated habitat surrounding the project site.”

McLaughlin opted to proceed despite the strong opposition, arguing that the facility is critical to the country’s economic future. Despite rising cruise ship arrivals, the country’s cruise arrivals are expected to decline in coming years due its lack of a land-based pier and terminal.

“The decision to be made is not whether we want to build cruise berthing, it is whether we want to remain in the cruise business in any significant way,” said McLaughlin in a Cayman Compass report.

Haiti’s blossoming tourism growth: Haiti is making an incredible return to Caribbean tourism relevance after decades spent absent from U.S. traveler’s itineraries. Despite tremendous odds, Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism and Creative Industries (MTIC), is re-establishing the country’s onetime status as a major Caribbean vacation destination.

MTIC has forged partnerships with hoteliers and entrepreneurs to develop $345 million in investment projects tied to tourism and related services. The projects include large-scale initiatives to improve existing sites and tourist infrastructure in Haitian districts including Ile-à-Vache, Côtes-de-Fer, Jacmel, Ile de la Tortue, Cap-Haïtien and Côte des Arcadins, and the addition of 2,180 new hotel rooms around the country.

The country’s hotel base is already surprisingly diverse and features several options suited to North American tastes, including the Marriott Port au Prince, which opened earlier this year. Last year MTIC launched a hotel classification system that utilizes the country’s national flower (and tourism logo), the hibiscus. The Karibe Hotel and Convention Center, the Inn at Villa Bambou, the Royal Oasis, the NH El Rancho and the Best Western Premier hotels have all earned a five-hibiscus rating.

Brazil prepares for Olympics: One year after its triumphant hosting of the FIFA World Cup, Brazil is again in position to highlight its abundant tourism attractions to an international audience via a major sports event.

Brazilian Ministry of Tourism and the Brazilian Tourism Board (Embratur) are making preparations to host millions of expected visitors to the country this summer, as Rio de Janiero hosts the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in July.

Early indications are the event will be a strong draw for U.S. travelers. Americans have purchased the largest number of tickets for the Games, said tourism ministry and Embratur officials.  To date Americans have purchased 88,100 tickets, outpacing the soccer-loving nations of France (54,600) and Germany (42,000).

In a statement, tourism ministry and Embratur officials cited initiatives designed to compel a vote on a Brazilian bill to provide visa waivers for U.S and Canadian citizens to enter Brazil during next year’s event. “We are working on some major projects, together with the other organs of the federal government, to make the Olympics a success like the World Cup,” said Henrique Alves, Brazil’s minister of tourism.

Devastation in Dominica: In an otherwise mild hurricane season, tiny Dominica was devastated by Erika, an August tropical storm that killed 20 residents and swamped villages, washed out bridges and shattered homes and businesses across the island.

Dominica’s government eventually launched a recovery and reconstruction fund to mitigate the “monumental” devastation of communities, buildings, roads and infrastructure. Roosevelt Skerrit, Dominica’s prime minister, said hundreds were left homeless by the storm.

Dominica’s Douglas-Charles International Airport was also severely damaged and the total cost of destruction across the island was estimated at $200 million. Skerrit said the storm damage “may have set our development process back by 20 years.”

Yet while some tourism sites remain inaccessible, the recovery is continuing and the majority of the island’s 94 hotels and resorts are open.

Dominica had experienced a successful run as a boutique Caribbean tourist destination in recent years, totaling 81,472 overnight tourist arrivals in 2014, a solid 4.1 percent increase over 2013 arrivals based on Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) statistics. The country’s cruise tourism sector performed strongly in 2014, with 286,573 cruise passenger arrivals, a 24.3 percent increase compared with 2013 shipboard arrivals.

Booming Barbados: Barbados’ campaign to recapture its one-time popularity among American travelers gained significant traction in 2015. Travel to the southern Caribbean island nation rebounded strongly this year after years of decline.

By nearly every measure, including land and sea arrivals, airlift and resort openings – Barbados is reported positive developments in 2015. The country recorded 432,713 overnight visitors through September, a 14.5 percent increase over 2014; arrivals from the U.S. increased by 27.9 percent during the period.

Cruise ship arrivals increased by five to seven percent through September, driven by 16 inaugural visits, said William Griffith, CEO of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. (BTMI). JetBlue Airways launched its Mint premium service between Barbados and New York this year, and also premiered new direct service from Boston. Sandals Barbados, which opened earlier this year, will additional 220 rooms in 2016. 

“This year we have seen growth in all of the major areas of importance, including airlift, accommodations, and programmes to enhance the quality of our tourism product,” Griffith said. “We are also enjoying favorable global economic conditions in several key source markets, the price of oil is down and travelers are gaining greater confidence and now booking further in advance.”

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