Defying storms, Caribbean tourism displays resiliency

Atlantis, Bahamas, host hotel for SOTIC. Photo credit: Jena Tesse Fox (Atlantis, Bahamas)

NASSAU, Bahamas — Hundreds of travel and hospitality professionals arrived at the Atlantis Resort on the Bahamas’ Paradise Island this week to attend the annual State of the Tourism Industry Conference, organized by the Caribbean Tourism Organization. 

While the official theme of the conference was “Rejuvenate, Recreate, Reconnect,” the unofficial theme was “resiliency,” a word repeated regularly by numerous speakers as they discussed the region’s future not only in the era of climate change and category-6 hurricanes, but in the era of millennial-guided “experiential” travel.

A Call to Action

The conference began with a call to action from Hubert Minnis, prime minister of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. “We must broaden our Caribbean brand in tourism,” the prime minister said at the conference’s opening ceremonies. “Our region must be known for extraordinary visitor experiences and services. We must also be known as a global center of excellence for all aspects of tourism development.” 

Minnis called out both Atlantis and the new Baha Mar resort as strong examples of Caribbean hospitality, incorporating local arts into the design and operations. Baha Mar, for example, has a gallery space known as The Current, and Fairwind, an exhibit of Bahamian art, at the resort’s convention center. “The Fairwind exhibition encompasses a survey of 100 years of Bahamian art, beginning in the late 1800s up to the contemporary practices of today,” Minnis said. “I believe that what Baha Mar is doing in terms of the incorporation of the heritage of The Bahamas has tremendous resonance for our region.” 

Atlantis’ Marina Village, meanwhile, incorporates a range of Bahamians arts and culture, while both Sandals and Breezes also promote Bahamian culture and arts. “I am delighted that the success of these two major properties in taking such an initiative is driving other smaller, boutique properties to do the same,” Minnis said. “These partnerships between artisans and tourism investors, both domestic and international, must be replicated if we are to provide even greater returns to our citizenry from the tourism sector.” 

By the Numbers

Even in the face of hurricanes, the Caribbean is still reporting solid travel numbers. Of the 22 reporting destinations, 13 of them registered increases in tourist arrivals during first half of 2018, ranging from 1.7 percent to 18.3 percent (Guyana), while seven recorded decreases of between -0.3  percent and 71 percent. According to Joy Jibrilu, Bahamas director general of tourism, the Bahamas saw a 6.5-percent increase in U.S. arrivals while total stopover arrivals are up 15 percent, and Canadian arrivals are up 28 percent year-to-date.

Antigua’s tourism minister Max Fernandez reported more than 1 million visitors to his country in 2017, largely driven by cruise arrivals, which improved 25 percent. (No surprise, then, that Antigua will get a fifth cruise berth by mid-2019.)

Puerto Rico’s Brad Dean said that the island has welcomed 1.2 million visitors since 2017's Hurricane Maria and gone from 20 to 110 flights per day. A full 135 hotels with 10,000 rooms are available now, and 15,000 guestrooms should be available by mid-2019.  

The numbers are attracting developers. During the conference, Jamaica’s director of tourism Donovan White announced that Hard Rock International is breaking ground on a 1,100-guestroom property in Montego Bay later this year, close to the Iberostar Hotel in Rose Hall. "Hard Rock is a part of a larger group of investors out of Mexico that have continued to expand their product portfolio across the region. Today, they operate in Mexico, they operate in the Dominican Republic as well and they have made the decision to invest in Montego Bay,” he said.

Building Better

At the “Building Better” session, insiders discussed the challenges posed by climate change and discussed how Caribbean destinations can create a strong infrastructure that will stand up to regular storms. Tom Hook, North American director of planning and landscape at B+H Architects, shared the schematics of projects he has worked on in flood zones, and explained how he designs to accommodate water. Retired U.S. Army Lt. General Russel Honore noted that developers keep building in regions prone to flooding, describing the repeated decision as “stuck on stupid.” All of the panelists, including Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, and moderator Dionisio D’Aguillar, the minister of tourism for the Bahamas and CTO chairman, called for increased government spending on infrastructure improvements, especially on improvements that can help hotels—and destinations as a whole—stand up to floods and gale-force winds.