Caribbean travel is still strong as some islands expect a record year

The appeal of the beach vacation is not to be underestimated.

In a year when post-pandemic travel seemed dominated by demand for Europe and other long-haul destinations, the Caribbean emerged as a leader in tourism growth and demand.

“We’ve had two consecutive years of record growth in the Caribbean in 2022 and 2023, from both a revenue standpoint and a traveler standpoint,” said Jack Richards, CEO of Pleasant Holidays. 

Richards projected that the Caribbean will outpace Hawaii next year to become Pleasant’s No. 1 destination for the first time. That’s due in large part to the sharp, double-digit decline in Hawaii demand since the August wildfires on Maui, but it’s also a testament to the Caribbean’s strength.

Two of the region’s most popular destinations have said that this year may prove to be their best yet. 

The Dominican Republic expects to welcome a record number of tourists in 2023, tourism officials said in October.

Growth this year is at its highest since the pandemic, up 35% over 2019, and the country expects to welcome 10 million visitors by end of year. The country was helped by cruising’s triple-digit rebound, bringing in 1.7 million arrivals between January and September. 

And Jamaica’s minister of tourism, Edmund Bartlett, said at the Jamaica Product Exchange (Japex) conference in September that the island is experiencing the “best year in the history of tourism,” expecting 2.7 million arrivals by the end of the year, 5% more than in 2019.

According to air travel analytics firm ForwardKeys, flight bookings to Caribbean destinations this year lead worldwide growth in international tourist arrivals when compared with 2019. 

The Dominican Republic dominates, with flight bookings 14% ahead of 2019, followed by Costa Rica and Aruba at 11%, Jamaica at 9% and the Bahamas at 3%. 

Greece was the only European destination to be in the top 10 of that list, up 3% over 2019, despite hordes of travelers crossing the pond during the first full year without Covid restrictions. 

“There’s been more proper competition from Europe this year, but the Caribbean has still managed to keep tourists coming,” said ForwardKeys spokesman David Tarsh.

That wasn’t the case last year, Tarsh said, when, between Covid restrictions and a summer of flight disruptions, “it was much harder to justify going to Europe than it is this year.” 

The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) attributes the region’s continued growth despite the competition to several reasons. Among them are strong demand for outbound travel from short-haul markets; increased air capacity and better connectivity; and continued promotion of the islands by their tourism boards. 

Tarsh said another factor is that some islands, most notably the Dominican Republic, stayed open during the pandemic, albeit with safety measures in place, working hard to keep tourists visiting throughout. That has continued paying off. “Happy customers come back,” he said.

Among the reasons Richards cited for Caribbean success is an increase in bookings from independent contractor travel advisors. Thanks to technology Pleasant uses that better enables its business development managers to engage and interact with ICs, they have in turn sold more Pleasant destinations, especially in the Caribbean.

Despite its success, economic headwinds could dampen upcoming travel demand for the Caribbean, said Dona Regis-Prosper, CEO and secretary-general of the CTO. Chief among them are high inflation and interest rates, potentially creating reduced expenditure on discretionary items such as travel.

“As a consequence, travelers may opt for shorter trips closer to their homes,” Prosper said. 

And while long-haul competition hasn’t hurt the Caribbean thus far, suppliers, including Pleasant and Apple Leisure Group Vacations, recently said that nearby Mexico saw a downturn this year after years of pandemic strength, due to the opening of Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. 

More competition for beach destinations could also come from sectors that took longer to rebound during the pandemic. City trips and urban tourism are seeing growth this year of 52% over 2022, compared with 26% growth for beach vacations this year, according to ForwardKeys.

But Caribbean countries have not stopped pushing to attract more travelers. 

The Dominican Republic is working to increase flight capacity and lower airfares through an open skies agreement with the U.S., and it will lean more on travel advisors to strengthen the destination’s tourism profile. 

Jamaica’s success this year has been pushed by 140,000 additional seats from the U.S., an 18% growth over 2019 lift, officials said at Japex. Bartlett also called the hotel investment horizon “bullish,” with 20,000 new rooms in the next 10 to 15 years, including 2,000 in 2024, he said. 

Among the new properties are an Autograph Collection all-inclusive, Hideaway at Royalton Blue Waters; the Princess Grand Jamaica; and the Riu Palace Aquarelle. The country is also planning to build 4,000 homes for tourism workers over the next few years and has trained 10,000 hospitality workers since 2020.

Gay Nagle Myers contributed to this report.

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