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Expect 2015 and 2016 to see new travel patterns as cruise ships refocus some efforts and Cuba's opening causes ripple effects.

A record 26.3 million people traveled to the Caribbean last year and spent an unprecedented amount of money in what is considered the world’s most tourism-dependent region, officials said Tuesday.

It is the fifth consecutive year that the Caribbean has reported an increase in tourists following an economic crisis that forced resorts to shut down and caused a drop in visitors and spending.

Hugh Riley, the Caribbean Tourism Organization‘s secretary general, said Caribbean tourism rose by 5.3 percent, while the worldwide tourism growth rate was 4.7 percent.

Officials attributed the increase in part to improvements at airports around the region, the opening of new hotel chains and an increase in direct flights and airline seat capacity.

The Dutch Caribbean saw the most growth, with Aruba for the first time reporting more than 1 million visitors. The Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica also saw an unprecedented number of visitors. Smaller destinations including Haiti, St. Lucia and Belize reported a record number of stay-over arrivals.

A surge in visitors from Canada, the U.S. and Europe helped set those records.

“It tells us that stability is returning to the market,” said Richard Sealy, chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Tourists overall spent more than $29 billion in the Caribbean last year, an increase of more than $1 billion over the previous year.

The region also welcomed nearly 24 million cruise ship passengers last year, an 8 percent increase, though Winfield Griffith, the organization’s research director, said he expected “another shift away from the Caribbean as the cruise lines try to diversity their product” in 2015.

Tourism officials also are keeping an eye on Cuba, with the island expected to attract far more tourists this year as relations between the U.S. and Cuba begin to thaw.

Riley said the organization plans to promote multi-destination travel to ease the potential impact on other islands.

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Tags: belize, caribbean, cuba, dominican republic, haiti, st. lucia, tourism

Photo credit: The east coast of Barbados' 70 miles of beaches is rough and rocky along the Atlantic, but the Caribbean side on the west coast, shown here, is known as the Platinum Coast dominated by pricy resorts. Bob Downing / Akron Beacon Journal/MCT

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