The Caribbean is rolling out its first regional marketing campaign in more than a decade, just in time for the next hurricane season that starts in June and while many destinations are still recovering. It's a cycle that's probably going to get a lot more normal for the region.
Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Jose may have struck parts of the Caribbean last year causing widespread devastation, but a new tourism campaign expected to launch by July has a strong message: the Caribbean won’t be washed away.
The campaign will focus on which islands, hotels, resorts, and attractions are operational, communicate timelines for re-openings and renovations, and spread general awareness of the Caribbean.
To brace against impact from future acts from Mother Nature, the region’s tourism officials are also launching a long-term tourism marketing fund for when destructive storms hit.
The Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, which is organizing the fund with the Caribbean Tourism Organization, estimates that about 65 percent of hotels and resorts on the British Virgin Islands are open as of the end of April and more than 90 percent of Puerto Rico properties are open.
Other battered islands such as Anguilla (65 percent open), Dominica (50 percent), St. Maarten (40 percent), and the U.S. Virgin Islands (40 percent) are working to rebound.
Countries such as the Bahamas, Grenada, St. Lucia, Cayman Islands, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago have contributed to the new tourism campaign, said Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “This short-term campaign is about image repair work on the Caribbean brand,” he said.
“The longer-term $20 million fund is separate and has a much bigger budget and larger effort, and we want every country involved,” said Riley. “The Caribbean’s market share is stable or falling but other regions are rising, hence the need for us to create a sustainable funding mechanism.” The Caribbean had 31.7 million international arrivals in 2017.
Some of the countries that are supporting the campaign, such as the Bahamas and Grenada, were relatively unimpacted by last year’s storms but are chipping in to raise the profile of the entire region.
Many travelers think the entire Caribbean took a direct hit when most of the damage was limited to the eastern Caribbean, said Riley. “People want to know what happened to their favorite island,” he said.
The fund, which has a goal of $20 million, is still in early stages. “The longer-term campaign is a part of the structure of what Caribbean tourism needs to do in the years ahead,” said Riley. “Tourism proceeds along a very structured planned pathway and brand leadership is one of the planned paths.”
Riley said he also wants the private sector to get involved with the fund, and tourism officials have started to reach out to private companies and organizations.
The campaign is meant to reach both cruise and overnight travelers, said Riley. “We’re aware there are people who see the Caribbean as a cruise destination,” he said. “Cruises are very important, but our aim for the campaign is for both sides.”
Riley said there’s been talk among Caribbean tourism officials for many years on creating a long-term marketing fund, but there wasn’t enough momentum in the past.
The Caribbean also hasn’t had a region-wide marketing campaign since after the 9/11 attacks in 2002, about 16 years ago. But regional or multi-country marketing campaigns for a place the size of the Caribbean – more than one-million square miles – are still the exception rather than the rule.
Two back-to-back category five hurricanes last year bumped the fund to the top of the priority list, said Riley. “If something were to happen in the future, our countries can be concentrated on rebuilding infrastructure but you shouldn’t have to worry about finding money to do necessary brand work,” he said. “Our message that we should be marketing the Caribbean consistently and sustainably never went away, we just turned up the volume.”
But news of the fund hasn’t reached some hoteliers on some of the hardest-hit islands such as Anguilla. Frank Pierce, director of sales and marketing for Zemi Beach House, which reopened in February, hadn’t heard of the fund before being contacted by Skift.
Francis Greenburger, CEO and Founder of Time Equities, which owns and operates the Altamer Resort on Anguilla, thinks the fund is a good idea for the region but said he isn’t active in either organization organizing the fund.
Greenburger said the resort will reopen in phases through next year, with the first of three villas reopening in October. “I’m sure most people are doing what we’re doing which is to upgrade and renovate what was there before,” said Greenburger. “Electricity was restored on Anguilla in December. For the average tourist, I don’t think the experience will be much different.”
Greenburger said specific properties suffered damage from the storms but the entire island wasn’t a disaster zone. “The beaches are exactly the same,” he said. “It’s not like you’ll see houses that have been blown away, it’s not like that.”
Wimco Villas, a villa rental company with properties on Anguilla, St Barths, Barbados, and Nevis, would also benefit from an effort aimed at the high-end leisure traveler to communicate that the region is fine, said Stiles Bennet, president and CMO of Wimco Villas.
The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1 and another active season is predicted. Riley said climate change, which some argued was likely a factor in last year’s intense storms, is increasingly a concern.
“One of the things we’ve discovered is that it’s not just about hotels in the aftermath of a storm, it’s also major communications companies,” said Riley. “We were told cell phone towers were built to withstand category 3 storms but these companies have assured us towers that could withstand category 5 hurricanes were being installed after last year’s storms.”
The Caribbean is up against geography ignorance, and news cycles and ongoing blackouts on islands like Puerto Rico also don’t help the region’s cause with travelers that are on the fence about trip plans.
Photo credit: The Caribbean is rolling out a regional marketing campaign to convey which islands are open for business. Pictured are U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency personnel surveying the beach of Great Cruz Bay on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma in October, 2017. Coast Guard News / Flickr