August 6, 2007
Fewer Americans are choosing Caribbean vacations as the market sets sights on more unique experiences in holiday travel. – File
The turquoise waters and white-sand beaches of the Caribbean appear to be losing some of their allure for United States tourists.
Americans who flocked to the islands in record numbers until recently are finding new destinations or staying home, leading to declines of more than 10 per cent this year in islands including Jamaica, St. Lucia and Grenada.
Governments have aimed marketing pitches at Canada and Europe to compensate for slippage in the American market, which accounts for about 60 per cent of the region’s vital tourism business.
“The trickle-down effect is huge,” said Richard Kahn, a spokesman for the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO). “In the long run, this could mean the loss of jobs throughout the Caribbean.”
A new passport rule has discouraged some travellers. Americans returning by air from the Caribbean were required to present the document beginning earlier this year the U.S. is temporarily accepting proof of application because of a backlog.
But even U.S. territories unaffected by the new security measure have seen declines – the number of Americans visiting Puerto Rico dropped 9.0 per cent in January compared with the same month last year, and the U.S. Virgin Islands saw a seven per cent drop.
Some simply want more exotic destinations.
“A lot of the larger islands are reaching that point where their market has been there, done that and is looking for a different experience,” said Cheryl Carter, a tourism instructor at Florida International University.
Ken Zapanta, a 30-year-old Californian, said he and his wife enjoyed their visit to Barbados two years ago but they cannot justify another Caribbean trip.
“Once was enough,” he said. “The beaches, you can get that anywhere.”
The number of American visitors dipped in the months after the September 11, 2001 attacks before surging more than 10 per cent over four years.
Last year, U.S. tourists staying overnight reached a peak of 11.5 million, according to statistics from the Barbados-based CTO.
Terrorism fears boosted the Caribbean’s appeal as a safe, nearby destination, said Joe Goldblatt, senior lecturer at Temple University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management. Over time, more U.S. tourists began visiting distant continents.
Facing uncertainty over when trends might reverse, Caribbean officials are focusing promotional efforts elsewhere.
Jamaica, hit by a 12 per cent drop in American visitors this year, has started advertising more in Canada and Europe, said Basil Smith, Jamaica’s director of tourism. A strong euro helped boost European visits by 22 per cent through April, he said.
The ‘Spice Island’ of Grenada arranged for the German airline Condor to offer weekly service year-round instead of only in the winter, said tourism board spokesman Edwin Frank. St. Lucia is negotiating with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways to provide more flights.
Some analysts argue U.S. tourism will rebound quickly, attributing the recent decline in part to a sluggish U.S. housing market that has cut into Americans’ spending. But others fear the new passport requirement could haunt Caribbean resorts for years.
“Once an American has now got a passport, the world is their market,” said Alec Sanguinetti, chief executive of the Caribbean Hotel Association. “They can go anywhere.”