There are challenges for sure. But Caribbean tourism officials are grateful for the Canadians who continue to visit year after year.
The chair of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, Richard Sealy, and the secretary-general of the CTO, Hugh Riley, are in Toronto this week to meet with major players in the business and to be sure Canadians continue to shower affection – and dollars – on the Caribbean.
“Things are very good at the moment,” said Sealy, who also is the tourism minister for Barbados, one of my favourite spots in the Caribbean. “Visitor numbers are good, receipts are good. We attracted a record 3.5 million Canadians last year.”
“That’s almost 10 per cent of our population,” I replied.
“Yes, but there’s still another 90 per cent to go,” Sealy said with a smile. “There’s a lot of opportunity, still.”
The Caribbean gets most of its Canadian visitors from Quebec and Ontario, our two biggest provinces. They’d like to add more from the western provinces and the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Which is a challenge given the economy in Alberta, for sure.
Sealy said 2015 visits to the Caribbean from Canada were up 4.5 per cent from 2014. So far in 2016, it appears Canadian visits are up 5 per cent; pretty good considering our dollar and the general malaise in the Canadian economy, and also a relatively mild winter last year.
There have been challenges with the Brexit issue devaluing the British pound. Zika also raised some concerns about travel in the Caribbean.
There’s little the CTO can do about the pound, but they said they’ve been strongly pro-active in taking on Zika, which appears to be more of a factor these days in Brazil and Florida than in the Caribbean.
Riley said the CTO worked with public health authorities, hotels and other stakeholders to be sure people know how to protect themselves and that other steps were taken, including spraying areas where mosquitoes might live and getting rid of standing water where they like to breed.
Cuba is, of course, a huge issue in the Caribbean these days. But that’s mostly for Americans who suddenly feel they can visit after several decades of not being able to go. It’s possible some Canadians will decide to visit other islands if Cuba gets too busy, but that’s fine with the CTO, which is trying to develop tourism and boost visits to places other than Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the Caribbean coast of Mexico.
One issue that seemingly is working in their favour right now is security. For all the troubles in France and Turkey and Africa, it appears for now as if the Caribbean is a very safe and secure spot for people to take a vacation; relatively free from the kind of strife sometimes seen in the Middle East. That could help with British tourists who might otherwise travel to Egypt or North Africa for a sun holiday. But the CTO isn’t counting on that in a big way and they only talked about the issue after I brought it up.
Riley said he was impressed by the security situation at Pearson Airport when he arrived in Toronto the other day, talking up the new machines that speed up the arrivals process.
“That’s something we’d like to look at,” he said.
One bonus in the Caribbean these days is added airlift from U.S.-based airlines such as United, Jet Blue and Southwest. Air Canada rouge also has been a big player in the Caribbean, Sealy pointed out.
“There was a lot of pessimism and negativity in the travel industry in 2008 and 2009 and that continued for a while,” said Riley. “But now people are much more upbeat.”
One thing they’re keeping an eye on is Air BnB. Hotels aren’t crazy about it, of course, but it’s a viable way for people to enjoy a holiday in the Caribbean and it’s definitely a factor. It might not help Marriott or Hilton hotel folks, but having someone stay at an Air BnB still means money for the local economy.
Sealy pointed out that Nov. 30 will be Barbados’ official 50th birthday as an independent country. Look for parades and a big party for sure, he said.
There also are new and improved hotels on the horizon, including a Sam Lord’s Castle hotel by Wyndham Grand in southeast Barbados and a huge expansion of the Sandals Resort in St. Lawrence Gap, which will go from 220 rooms to 500 or so.
I had a short but great visit to Barbados earlier this year, staying the night at Sugar Bay Resort on the south coast. On previous visits I’ve managed some time at The Crane, a fabulous resort in the southeast part of the island, and also at Sandy Lane and the villas at Royal Westmoreland, a wonderful golf course with a great beach (Mullins) nearby.
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