Sun-drenched Caribbean hopes for rebound in tourism

Wednesday, 26 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica (Reuters): Tourism-dependent Caribbean countries are optimistic that business will continue to grow this year after visits to the sun-drenched region increased nearly five per cent in 2010.

Regional business leaders expect to see growth, essential for sorely needed jobs and tax revenues, despite many challenges, including Britain’s 2009 hike in its air passenger duty tax, which caused British travel to the Caribbean to fall.

Josef Forstmayr, President of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, speaking at the group’s Marketplace 2011 event earlier this week in Montego Bay, Jamaica, said there are signs of growth after the global recession in 2008 and 2009.

“Right now at Marketplace 2011, we have more buyers that have come to meet with hotels and tourist offices than last year, an indication that business is coming back,” he said.

The Caribbean is more dependent on travel and tourism than almost any other region, according to the World Tourism Organization. Of the 10 countries in the world most reliant on tourism, seven are in the Caribbean.

Forstmayr, a Jamaican hotelier, said tourism is the essential provider of employment and a principal provider of taxes for Caribbean governments to provide funding for education, healthcare and key infrastructure projects.

According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, visitor arrivals in 2010 rose by 4.7 per cent to 23.1 million, up from 22.1 million visitors in 2009.

Cruise tourism has also been on the rise, growing six per cent in 2010.

“Indications are that the fortunes of Caribbean tourism are gradually changing for the better, but could take some time before experiencing robust, sustained growth,” said Winfield Griffith, Director of Research and Information Technology for the tourism organisation.

Bermuda’s Director of Tourism, William Griffith, said preliminary figures indicate that the island, which is highly dependent on the US market, saw arrivals rise by 12 per cent in 2010, driven by a double-digit increase in cruise arrivals.

Air arrivals at 235,000 were flat, he said.

“In terms of advance projection, certainly in the first six months of the year, we are optimistic. We are keeping our fingers crossed that things continue to trend positively for Bermuda,” Griffith said.

Barbadian hotelier Peter Odle said the biggest challenge on the horizon was next summer, a time when the industry traditionally sees a slight decline.

“Hopefully, we can maintain market share and then we should be OK,” he said.

St. Lucia Tourism Minister Allen Chastanet called 2010 a record year for the eastern Caribbean island, with over 670,000 cruise ship arrivals and 320,000 land-based arrivals.

“Those numbers would have been substantially higher had it not been for the mishap with Hurricane Tomas, but overall, I think we are very pleased with the performance of tourism in St. Lucia for 2010,” he told Reuters.

Chastanet said he was cautiously optimistic about this year but will be looking at the impact of the increase in the price of fuel and continuing fallout from the British tax.

Britain’s air passenger duty tax rates vary, dictated by how the UK government classifies worldwide destinations – with passengers to the Caribbean among those particularly hard hit.

Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding said several appeals had been made about the tax’s negative impact on the region.

“Going to London and pleading are not the only options we have,” Golding said at the opening of the Marketplace conference. He did not elaborate but called the tax “unfair and unjust,” saying it was “in conflict with established global rules of tourism.”

British Airways) Chief Executive Willie Walsh, speaking at a conference in Barbados last October, said arrivals from Britain to some Caribbean islands had fallen as much as 25 per cent since November 2009 due to the tax.