Late last month the UN World Tourism Organization released its annual tourism barometer that showed a marked slowdown in travel to the Caribbean. This trend was reflected in the apparent declining interest in Caribbean vacations seen in Google Search Trends.

Today, executives of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) delivered their State of the Industry report which, while confirming the relatively poor performance in 2013, sought to look at the upside potential for the region in 2014 and beyond.

Growth in Visitor Spend Outpaces Growth in Visitor Arrivals

CTO Chairman Beverly Nicholson-Doty opened the briefing by pointing to the best top-line number for the year: a 2.3% year-on-year growth in visitor spend, rising to US$28 billion dollars. Ms. Nicholson-Doty acknowledged that this positive growth in spend was tempered by the slowdown in overall tourist arrivals in 2013 compared to prior years. The region welcomed a total of 25 million visitors in 2013, a modest 1.8% increase over 2012.

Going South

Caribbean Tourism NumbersWhile 2013 saw a slowdown in growth in international arrivals from the key North American markets, visitors from South America improved significantly, showing a 13% increase over 2012 levels and a 70% increase from 2009 levels. The CTO attributes this recent growth to the relatively stronger economies in that region, particularly Brazil. Expect to see tourism boards and hotel brands focus their marketing efforts more intently on South America as a hedge against uncertainty in North America and Europe.

Cruise Travel Remains Steady

Despite wild fluctuations from destination to destination, cruise travel in the region remained steady overall in 2013, recording a notable 2.7% increase over 2012. Although in-port visitor spend by cruise passengers pales in comparison to that of stop-over visitors, the cruise industry remains a strong contributor to economic activity across the region. In 2013, the Caribbean accounted for over 45% of global ship deployments, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), bringing 21.8 million passengers to the region.

Top Performers

In terms of total number of visitors, the usual suspects (Dominican Republic, Cuba, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico) continued to lead the region. However, in terms of year-on-year growth, these destinations were outpaced by the smaller players in the region, who recorded from high single to impressive double-digit growth. The obvious caveat is that these islands start with smaller visitor numbers historically, but the strong growth across these markets suggests a developing trend: the attractiveness of lesser known, and lesser traveled, destinations to travelers looking to really “get away”.

  • Montserrat: +37.9%
  • Haiti: +20.3%
  • Guyana: +11.6%
  • Aruba: +8.3%
  • Belize: +7.0+

Outlook for 2014

CTO Director of Research and IT Winfield Griffith provided additional context around the 2013 numbers and reinforced a cautiously optimistic outlook for 2014. She indicated that the CTO projects between 2% and 3% increase in tourism arrivals this year, based on what it believes are “expected improvements in the global market place”. This is slightly below UNWTO projections of +3% to +4% for the Americas and 4% – 4.5% worldwide.

Ms. Griffith also pointed to research by the Inter-American Development Bank about the potential for reaching the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) as new markets for the Caribbean product. However, there is broad understanding in the region that the challenge of airlift will continue to be an impediment to making any meaningful headway into these markets, with the possible exception of Brazil.

Originally published on BusinessOfTourism, reprinted with permission.

Photo Credit: Montserrat, one of the smallest but fastest growing islands in the Caribbean. rachel_thecat / Flickr