Last updated: 03:53 PM ET, Fri September 23 2016

Caribbean Tourism Surmounting Challenges

What hasn’t Caribbean tourism faced in terms of challenges this year? Even as 2016 dawned, the exceedingly contentious U.S. presidential election promised to impact discretionary spending among U.S. consumers, the Caribbean’s number one source market.

Since then, Caribbean hoteliers, destinations and attractions have faced all manner of adversity. The Zika virus’ emergence earlier this spring stoked travelers’ fears of infection, leveling a significant blow to regional hotels, resorts and destinations. Several hoteliers reported a steep drop in summer occupancy this year, and travel research firm STR linked early-season performance decreases at Caribbean hotels to Zika virus concerns.

While relatively mild, this year’s hurricane season nevertheless wreaked a considerable toll on Belize as Hurricane Earl caused widespread damage across the archipelago in August. Bermuda is currently eyeing an oncoming tropical storm, while Dominica has struggled to overcome the impact of tropical storm Erika, which late last year caused flooding, loss of life and more than $200 million in damage to homes, businesses and tourist facilities.

And while regional air access continued to expand as several carriers this year added new Caribbean-bound flights from North American cities, the intra-Caribbean air network remained fractured and inordinately high-priced, limiting options for regional travelers and residents alike.

“When I have to jump on a plane from the Bahamas to Miami to come to Barbados, it’s clear we have not been able to find ways to connect our islands,” said Obie Wilchcombe, the Bahamas tourism minister, at last week’s Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO)’s “State of the Industry” conference.

Furthermore, while terrorist incidents have been virtually absent from Caribbean shores, its appearance in other international destinations dominated summer news reports and increased travelers’ likelihood of altering their travel plans.

The region’s obstacles haven’t ended there. Caribbean destinations that rely on U.K. travelers are nervously eyeing the Brexit’s potential to impact British consumers’ travel expenditures. Islands that rely on Canadian travelers are weathering the effects of that nation’s economic struggles. Caribbean tourism stakeholders are even lamenting the recent loss of traveler dollars to this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero.

How has the widespread adversity impacted the region? Well the Caribbean hosted 28.7 million visitors in 2015 according to Caribbean Tourism Organization statistics, a seven percent increase over 2014 and a record in terms of arrivals to the region. Outgoing CTO chairman Richard Sealy, who this year was replaced by Wilchcombe, said Caribbean destinations are performing so well the region is expected to host 30 million visitors in 2016.

Those figures beg the question of just how the Caribbean, described as “the most tourism-dependent in the world” by CTO secretary general Hugh Riley, has managed to surmount so many obstacles this year and in recent times. Indeed the region continues to rank not only as one of the world’s premiere vacation destinations but also among the fastest-growing.

Certainly the outstanding natural environment, which has attracted visitors for generations, is responsible for keeping the Caribbean at the forefront of international travel destinations. Beautiful beaches are as much a part of Barbados and Jamaica as they are of the Dominican Republic, Anguilla, Antigua, the Cayman Islands and the Turks & Caicos.   

But as I’ve learned over the last six years of covering the region, there’s much more to the Caribbean than white-sand beaches, lush mountains and brilliant blue waters.

The region is an adventure love’s delight. In the past few years, I’ve river-tubed along an underground river in a cave in Belize. I’ve traveled 4,745 feet across a zipline hundreds of feet over a river gorge at Puerto Rico’s Toro Verde nature park. I’ve worked the long oars of a yole racing boat in Martinique and ridden on horseback across El Limon waterfall on the Dominican Republic’s Samana peninsula.

Caribbean destinations are also under-rated in terms of historic attractions. During a visit to the Musee du Pantheon National Haitien in Port au Prince, Haiti last year, I marveled as I looked over the anchor from Christopher Columbus’ ship Santa Maria. Last year I also stopped in at the Curacao Maritime Museum, where I photographed the 1,600-pound bronze canon ejected from the frigate Alphen which for still-unknown reasons, exploded and sank in 1778 in the port of Willemstad.

I’ve strolled the oldest paved street in the Americas, Calle de Las Damas, in the Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo and spent time at the St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands home of Camille Pissarro, the 19th century artist widely considered the father of the French Impressionist painting school, who was born and raised in historic Charlotte Amalie.

Bottom line there is more to experience in the Caribbean beyond the outstanding natural attributes. Although the region continues to face a myriad of challenges to its visitor growth, there are numerous reasons for travelers to keep coming back for more.