V.I. official: Caribbean tourism bounces back

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ST. THOMAS - As the global economy begins to recover from its collapse in 2008, tourism to the Caribbean is picking up and many destinations - including the U.S. Virgin Islands - are seeing more money flowing into their coffers.

V.I. Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty, who is the current chairwoman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, gave the annual State of the Industry report at Government House on St. Thomas on Monday.

She revealed the 2013 tourism statistics for the region and shared the forecast for the 2014 tourist season.

"The state of the Caribbean's tourism industry is dynamic, with positive signs that a recovery is in progress," she said.

2013 Tourism Statistics

Nicholson-Doty said the amount of money spent by travelers grew faster than the number of arrivals for the first time in three years.

Visitors to the region spent more than $28 billion in 2013, a 2.3 percent increase compared with 2012, she said.

The growth was fueled by overnight accommodations, which saw a 7.5 percent rise in room revenues compared with the previous year.

According to Smith Travel Research, average room rates were up by about $10, to $186 per night. Hotel occupancy levels were at about 67 percent, directly in line with "pre-crisis" levels, Nicholson-Doty said.

"In fact, there wasn't a single month during 2013 that any of these indicators fell below 2012 levels," she said.

However, overall growth in the region's tourism was minimal.

Total arrivals rose by about 1.8 percent, a significantly slower growth rate than the 4.9 percent rise in 2012, according to Nicholson-Doty.

"Still, the Caribbean welcomed over 25 million stay-over visitors last year, up from 24.6 million in 2012," she said.

March 2013 had a record number of arrivals, almost 3 million visitors traveled to the Caribbean that month, Nicholson-Doty said.

That number was more than the previous record of 2.75 million in 2008 or the 2.6 million who came in March 2012, she said.

The slow overall growth is attributed to weak economic conditions in the places visitors to the Caribbean live. In the past, Europe, Canada and the United States made up the biggest markets for travel to the Caribbean.

While about 50 percent of visitors to the Caribbean are still coming from America, Canada's international travel has dried up completely and a skyrocketing tax on air travel from the United Kingdom has curbed European visitors.

Nicholson-Doty said South America - particularly Brazil - is emerging as the Caribbean's next key market. In 2009, about 859,000 visitors traveling to the Caribbean were from South America. Now, almost 1.5 million are coming from that region.

"That's 13 percent higher than 2012 and a whopping 70 percent over 2009. This is due to the strong economies in South America, particularly Brazil and Venezuela," Nicholson-Doty said.

Cruise arrivals saw "wild fluctuations" depending on the destination. Grenada was one of the hardest hit with a 22 percent drop in cruise passengers, while Curacao saw a 45 percent up tick in visitors, according to the statistics.

For the region as a whole, 22 million cruise passengers visited the Caribbean, about 2.75 percent more than in 2012.

2014 Outlook

"It's evident that the atmosphere of despair has lifted and the Caribbean anticipates an improved performance in 2014. Clearly, we continue to face challenges, therefore, we can be neither cocky, complacent or overconfident. We have to fight to boost arrivals both from the traditional markets and new and emerging markets," Nicholson-Doty said.

According to the International Monetary Fund, global economies will continue to grow in 2014, although that growth will be minimal - 1 percent in Europe and 2.8 percent in the United States.

"The demand for travel, therefore, will remain buoyant. As a result, tourist arrivals to the Caribbean are expected to rise between 2 and 3 per cent in 2014," Nicholson-Doty said.

New cruise ships will be delivered to cruise companies in 2014, and several of those ships will be sailing in the Caribbean.

The CTO predicts that cruise passenger arrivals to the Caribbean will increase by about 3 percent in 2014, Nicholson-Doty said.

U.S. Virgin Islands

According to the CTO's 2013 statistics, the U.S. Virgin Islands fared pretty well compared with other Caribbean islands.

With about 579,000 visitors, the territory was seventh in total arrivals. The top draw was the Dominican Republic with 4.1 million visitors.

Unfortunately, the territory's numbers were lower than those of the previous year. Arrivals in 2013 dropped by about 5.5 percent compared with 2012.

However, the U.S. Virgin Islands was the third most popular spot for cruise arrivals. Only the Bahamas and Cozumel bested the territory for number of cruise passengers. With 1.7 million guests arriving by cruise ship, the territory fared better than some of its fiercest competitors, including St. Maarten, which had 1.2 million, and the Cayman Islands, which had 1.1 million.

For more information, go to www.onecaribbean.org.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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