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Buoyant U.S. wanderlust is driving Caribbean tourism, now targeted to surpass 2019 visitor levels as post-outbreak land and sea growth continue in 2023 despite rising prices, geopolitical tensions and air connectivity challenges, Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) officials said Tuesday.
"Compared to 2022, overall arrivals to the region will increase by 10 to 15 percent," said Neil Walters, CTO's acting secretary general, in a media briefing. "Between 31.2 and 31.6 million tourists can be expected to visit the region this year. Thus, tourist arrivals this year might surpass pre-pandemic levels."
CTO reported 31.5 million visitors in 2019.
"It is clearly apparent that even in the face of the devastating blows delivered by the pandemic as a region, we have responded with hope strength and determination to prevail," said Kenneth Bryan, CTO's chairman and tourism minister of the Cayman Islands.
"Many of our jurisdictions ended 2022 registering higher than predicted visitor arrivals," said Bryan. "This is a clear indication this sector is bouncing back. Hopes are high the robust pace of recovery will continue in 2023 and beyond."
He added, "Although we have not yet surpassed the 2019 numbers across the board in every jurisdiction, the needle is certainly moving in the right direction."
The U.S. is leading the recovery, Walters said, as demand from the Caribbean's largest source market grew 21.8 percent in 2022, totaling 14.6 million visitors, or 51.5 percent of all Caribbean travelers.
Travel from the U.S. during the region's key winter season increased 74 percent in 2022 compared with 2021, said Walters. "The results were helped by the region's proximity to its main source market and [the Caribbean's] positive image in U.S. marketplaces."
Nearly every CTO member country reported 2022 visitor growth, with the exception of Haiti, where arrivals dropped 20.3 percent year-over-year in 2022 as travel was negatively impacted by "the well-documented crisis," said Walters, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where visitors were down 3.2 percent.
CTO's 27 other member destinations reported year-over-year increases in overnight, land-based visitor arrivals in 2022 of between 8.3 percent and "a sixteen-fold increase," Walters said.
The U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, the Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Curacao all surpassed their pre-pandemic arrivals in 2022, Walters said. A third of CTO's remaining destinations recovered at least 80 percent of their pre-pandemic arrivals.
Regional travel is growing on both land and sea. Citing data from travel research firm STR, Caribbean hotel occupancy increased from 44.4 percent in 2021 to 60.7 percent in 2022, Walters said.
Also, the regional average daily rate (ADR) increased by 21.7 percent during the same period, while revenue per available room (RevPar) increased by 66.4 to $176.46. The number of available rooms was up by 4.4 percent while room income increased by 73.6 percent, said Walters.
Meanwhile, all Caribbean cruise ports have re-opened, with several launching or re-establishing homeports, said Walters. CTO forecasts between 32 million and 36 million cruise visits overall, "a five to 10 percent increase over the pre-Covid baseline figure," he said.
While major airlines have returned to much of their pre-pandemic Caribbean schedules, Bryan said major carriers have yet to resume about 25 percent of Caribbean-serving routes, hindering additional visitor growth.
A long-debated issue even prior to the pandemic, Bryan said airlines are "in business to make money" and may need to be persuaded to increase Caribbean air service.
"We have to incentivize [airlines] and give them options that make [Caribbean flights] less expensive," Bryan said. "It may mean all Caribbean [nations] have to look over their tax structure. [Tax incentives] are no different than a revenue guarantee."
Bryan said CTO will bring member destinations "back to the table "to discuss air taxation options. Are [Caribbean governments] willing to put some skin into the game?" he asked. "Money does rule the world, unfortunately."
CTO also plans to resume the organization's Caribbean Week event in New York from June 5-8 this year. The long-running conference and concurrent consumer promotions and events were canceled in 2021 and last year as several CTO destinations were still under restrictions, Walters said.
The situation "not only presented resource challenges but also general uncertainty regarding the recovery of travel," Walters added. "As a result, our ability to resume activities in the marketplace was impacted."
"We can and we should celebrate our shared history and heritage," Bryan said. He added that CTO leaders will also seek to reform the organization's mission and purpose while recruiting new member countries and partnerships with other travel organizations.
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Brian Major is Managing Editor for Digital Publications & Guides/Caribbean.
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