For travel advisors, that means many more choices of destinations and resorts in 2019 than in 2018, notably in Puerto Rico and St. Maarten, where the hurricanes caused visitor arrivals to fall 45.6 percent and 79 percent, respectively, in 2018. In Puerto Rico, for example, nearly all major hotels have reopened in San Juan, including the storm-damaged El San Juan, a landmark hotel that reemerged in December 2018 after a $60 million renovation. St. Maarten/St. Martin officials say the island is about 70-75 percent back to pre-storm operations now and will be 98 percent restored by next year.
The U.S. Virgin Islands also announced that it was “open for business” again at the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA)’s annual Travel Marketplace held in Montego Bay, Jamaica in early February, with officials saying that 60 to 65 percent of accommodations across the USVI are now open, with a total of 1,050 rooms open on St. Thomas, 600 on St. Croix, and 150 on St. John. Flights to St. Thomas are back to about 80 percent of pre-storm levels, while there are actually more flights to St. Croix now than before the island was walloped by Hurricane Maria.
As the most hard-hit Caribbean destinations report substantial progress toward a return to normalcy - even if it’s more of a “new normal” - investment in new resorts and attractions is continuing across the region as authorities take steps to ensure that they will be more prepared to respond when the next crisis, weather-weather-related or otherwise, occurs.
The new Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Center, announced at the Marketplace, is intended to help destinations in the Caribbean and globally to better prepare for, manage, and recover from disasters - including using real-time data and communication to get ahead of news and social media reports that can misrepresent the reality on the ground and add to the economic damage even when skies have cleared.
In 2017, for example, the entire Caribbean region suffered some from the misperception that it was a “damaged destination,” despite a majority of islands emerging from the storms unscathed. “The time to recovery can be greatly reduced if we know how to deal with the media,” said Jamaican tourism minister Edmund Bartlett.
“A lot has been said about the environmental challenges that hurricanes present but they are perhaps the single largest threats to our economies,” said Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) Chairman Dominic Fedee in explaining the need for the center based at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, noting that many countries have piled up large debts rebuilding from past storms.
The official stance at the conference was one of optimism about the future: In the place of 2018’s talk of rebuilding and recovery after hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria (declared the “Year of Rejuvination” by the CTO) was a more placid message celebrating 2019 as the “Year of Festivals,” highlighting “music, art, sailing, lights, food, rum, religious, literary and dance festivals celebrated throughout the region.”
Individual destinations touted visitor-friendly events like the annual Mango Festival in St. Kitts and Nevis and the second annual Flavors of Grenada food festival in May. The St. Lucia Jazz Festival is returning to its roots via a collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center that will include an appearance by the program’s artistic director, Wynton Marsalis. A little further out, Barbados is calling all Bajans overseas home in 2020 for a grand gathering of the island’s diaspora.
While acknowledging the lingering effects of 2017, CHTA director general and CEO Frank Comito said the outlook for Caribbean hotels was bright, with an industry survey finding that 85 percent of hoteliers in the region having a positive outlook for 2019 after experiencing a bounce-back year in 2018. More than three-quarters of those surveyed reported increased revenue in 2018, with 29 percent saying they experienced significant growth.
Caribbean tourism officials also foreshadowed “unprecedented growth” in airlift to the region, somewhat muted by concern that airfares have remained stubbornly high despite increased competition.
“We are seeing high levels of investments in upgrades of existing hotels over the past three years, and the growth in new room inventory contributes to modest increases in room rates as the region’s product continues to expand and improve,” said Comito. “This is a considerable shift from what we were seeing four years ago (when only about half of hotels were profitable), and is expected to continue this year.”
Bolstering Comito’s case was the release of the CTO’s Caribbean Tourism Performance Report, which detailed a strong performance during the last four months of 2018, “including a robust showing by countries impacted by the 2017 hurricanes,” said Ryan Skeete, CTO’s director of research and IT. “Having registered declines during the first eight months of the year, signs of a rebound emerged in September when the region recorded a 3 percent rise. The numbers in October confirmed the recovery, with a healthy 11.8 percent growth, and by the end of the year tourist arrivals in the last four months were up 9.8 percent.”
“We are projecting that tourist arrivals will increase between 6 percent and 7 percent in 2019, as the damaged infrastructure in the hurricane-impacted destinations returns to capacity. Similarly, cruise arrivals should expand by a further 4 percent to 5 percent,” said Skeete.
St. Maarten/St. Martin: One of the islands hardest hit by the 2017 storms has 1,134 rooms open by December 2018 - “all renovated,” as one tourism official wryly noted - with plenty more on the way, including the much-anticipated reopening of the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort in late February 2019. Travelers landing at storm-savaged Princess Juliana International Airport no longer have to clear immigration in tents, with operations moved back inside the terminals and restoration work on one of the Caribbean’s busiest airports set for completion in 2020.
St. Kitts and Nevis: The biggest news out of this two-island nation is the imminent closing of the Four Seasons Nevis, which will shutter between June and October 2019 for a major renovation project. On the bright side, the destination is getting more flights, with SunCountry adding service from Minneapolis/St. Paul in April and Dallas in May; American Airlines also will add flights from Dallas this year.
Grenada: The “spice island” is reinforcing its claim to the mantle of Caribbean chocolate capital with the opening of a fifth chocolate factory, Tri Island Chocolate, a small batch, tree-to-bar chocolatier that like others on island offers tastings and tours. Major hotel developments include the debut of the boutique Silversands Grenada resort on Grand Anse beach in December and the 300-room Royalton Grenada on Magazine Beach, which will be the island’s largest hotel when it opens in December 2019.
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