Skift Take

Airlines are kingmakers or heartbreakers when it comes to Caribbean tourism, and Grand Cayman is feeling the effects of a loss of direct flights from Philadelphia, San Juan, Dallas/Fort Worth and Atlanta.

There is sometimes so much misinformation disseminated in the media about tourism, it becomes even more important that the facts prevail.

It’s official.

Our neighbour, St Lucia, overtook us for the first four months of this year, in terms of United States long stay visitor arrivals.

Despite having a much smaller room stock, St Lucia welcomed 43,335 American visitors between January and the end of April, an increase of 6.6 percent, when compared with the same period in 2012.

Barbados recorded 42,516 for the identical four months, a decline of 11.9 percent.

The trend continues with the addition of a new weekly flight nonstop United Airlines service from Newark, adding another 3,000 plus seats during the second half of 2013.

So there is little doubt that St Lucia will still be ahead in this market, by year end.

Newark Liberty Airport offers for many a more convenient access than JFK or La Guardia in the TriState area, one of the most populous urban agglomerations in the world. It is also United’s third largest hub after Houston and Chicago, with the St Lucia flight connecting with 22 US cities, plus a number in Canada, increasing travel options and reducing overall journey times.

Americans have generally less paid holidays than Europeans, so it becomes even more critical to be able to reach the ultimate destination in the shortest time, if ‘we’ are serious about competing in this market.

And this perhaps, partially explains why we have seen such a dramatic fall in US arrivals, having lost direct flights from Philadelphia, San Juan, Dallas/Fort Worth and Atlanta.

If the journey takes too long, involves an overnight stay in one or both directions or has a protracted connection time in Miami or New York, savvy travellers switch to a more accessible vacation choice.

Another way that St Lucia can substantially benefit is by tapping into the 52 million members of the second largest airline loyalty programme in the world, United MileagePlus.

Every day United redeems 17,000 reward trips.

For many years, I have been trying to persuade the policymakers to include a box on a revised landing card, to indicate if our guests used miles to reach us.

To the best of my knowledge, no researched data is available to accurately gauge what percentage of our overall arrivals redeems their loyalty points on vacation travel.

But from our own empirical evidence, we calculate it could be as high as 10 to 15 percent.

The compelling reason for using miles is that they break down the geographical cost differential, because the same number of miles is required, irrespective of the originating gateway within the Continental United States and Canada.

As a simple example, the lowest cost return flights from Chicago to St Lucia booked online in August is US$886. MileagePlus members would apply 35,000 miles, with US$85.40 payable in additional taxes.

From my own personal experience, I use miles to travel at least twice a year, using points earned through my credit card with American AAdvantage. This despite not having purchased a full price ticket with the airline for many years. By selectively using this method of bill settlement, this month I will have amassed one million miles since signing up for the loyalty programme. ___

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Tags: cayman islands, st. lucia

Photo credit: U.S. visitors to the Caribbean value direct flights, and Grand Cayman has seen St. Lucia tourism make gains as the result of Grand Cayman's loss of direct flights. Jeremy T. Hetzel / Flickr

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