Tourism has been the lifeblood of the Caribbean economy since the first modern resorts were opened in The Bahamas, Barbados, and Jamaica back in the mid-20th century.
There was a time, however, that the Caribbean came to be regarded as a haven that affluent Westerners escaped to “to be able to drink guiltlessly in the sunlight," as Ted Wallace, the antihero of Stephen Fry's Hippopotamus put it.
The sector is trying to break away from that cliché by moving in new directions and reinventing itself in innovative ways, though the lure of white sandy beaches, sunny tropical weather, and the local offerings of food and drink with a Latin jazz or reggae soundtrack still tempt many travelers to visit the region.
In 2017, the Dominican Republic was the market leader with over 6.18 million stay-over tourists, followed by Cuba (4.70 million) and Jamaica (2.35 million), and The Bahamas and Puerto Rico also had notable market shares.
Return to growth
Since 2018 things have been getting even better. New data pertaining for 1Q2019 released by the region's joint tourism development agency, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), note an unprecedented 12% growth.
Independent tourism authorities of the region are of the same opinion. The Bahamas' minister of tourism, Dionisio D'Aguilar, announced a 16.9% jump in the number arrivals in 2018, and reassured everyone that the period of growth will not be short-lived.
Fausto Fernandez, the Dominican Republic's Vice Minister of Tourism, said in a conference in 2018 that hotel occupancy rates have been impressive in his country.
Similarly, Jamaica's tourism minister, Edmund Bartlett, stated in 2019 that “Our arrival figures are now at a stratospheric level where, for the first time in history, we welcomed some two million visitors in the first five months of the year and earned USD1.7 billion in revenue."
New source countries
Simultaneously with this market expansion, unprecedented trends are emerging in Caribbean tourism.
The Caribbean holds a great deal of appeal for holidaymakers from different parts of the world, but US tourists arriving on cruise ships from Florida and on flights from across the US have traditionally accounted for the majority of arrivals in the Caribbean.
In recent years, however, the number of visitors from Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean region itself has been on the rise, which means the region's tourism products are now in demand by and accessible to a more diverse mix of customers.
With the clichés surrounding the Caribbean islands out of the way, more and more travelers in Jamaica are beginning to leave the comfort of their all-inclusive resorts in places such as Montego Bay to hit the road and explore the real Jamaica.
Kingston, Jamaica's capital city, which was often given a wide berth by tourists due to safety concerns is now asserting itself as an urban center with a rich heritage in terms of music, culture, and food, especially among younger western travelers who do not have particularly deep pockets.
This trend is not limited to Jamaica; in other Caribbean tourism hotspots, too, visitors are going beyond the resorts. But, in the Dominican Republic this is happening in a rather different way.
Property ownership by foreigners is taking off in the Caribbean islands, especially in the Dominican Republic which has been enjoying high levels of political stability since the 1990s.
Given the affordability of real estate in the Dominican Republic and lower taxes compared to the US and Canada, wealthier and older North Americans now see the Caribbean as a viable location for long-term or on-and-off residence.
There number of gated communities in Punta Cana, La Romana, and Puerto Plata has been on the rise in 1Q2019 and the prices—at USD600-1200 per square meter—are still affordable for many.
The fact that individuals from more age groups, socioeconomic classes, and nationalities are now taking an interest in the Caribbean islands is certainly a good news for the sector in 2019, and a good omen for growth in 2020.