Reinventing the Caribbean: Updates and Reflections on the State of The Industry Conference (SOTIC2018)

The view from my room at the Atlantis on Paradise Island, Nassau, host of the Caribbean’s 2018 SOTIC conference.

“It’s a time to reinvent ourselves.”

These words stuck with me at the close of SOTIC 2018. They came from St. Lucia’s Minister of Tourism, Hon. Dominic Fedee. The newly elected chair of the Caribbean Tourism Organization was addressing a room full of media on the last day of the annual State of the Industry conference.

His words neatly summarized a recurring theme throughout the sessions at SOTIC on the current state of tourism in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean: a region famously marketed as a paradisiacal escape of blues, friendly people, and all inclusive resorts. Perhaps because of this image and brand, it’s a region where visitors still have difficulty distinguishing one island country or territory from the other. This was painfully obvious last year, when the twin category

five hurricanes struck and mainstream media depicted the Caribbean as a single country, while travelers confused Dominica with the Dominican Republic.

But the Caribbean, as those of us who live or are from there know, is much more than a holiday destination. It’s more than beaches and rum punches. It’s well beyond a place that exists solely for foreigners seeking rest and escape from their daily woes. Of course, most of the islands’ economies depend on tourism, but that’s not the full nor the only picture.

At SOTIC, much of the discussion centered around how to redefine the Caribbean in a post Maria and Irma world, in an industry that is rapidly changing, and how to meet travelers’ ever-demanding desires and whims. As one of the members of the media asked: why should travelers keep the Caribbean on the top of their list for an extended escape, when there are other fascinating destinations, like Asia?

Current and Future Outlook

Below is a summary of the current state of tourism in a handful of Caribbean CTO-member countries, as shared by their representatives. Several reported significant increases in tourism arrivals, including Jamaica, Barbados, and Belize. Others experienced a decline as a result of last year’s hurricane damage, such as Dominica and the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Yet remarkably, most of the latter have bounced back and have surprising updates under way.

Colin Piper, CEO and Director of Tourism, Discover Dominica.

ANTIGUA + BARBUDA

Who doesn’t remember the images and videos circulating last year of a torn up Barbuda, and its residents fleeing to Antigua? Well, you can file those memories away. In true Caribbean character, the islands of Antigua and Barbuda have rebounded and experienced record arrivals in 2017, with a seven percent air arrival increase so far in 2018. Delta will offer new weekly roundtrip flights from New York in December, and American will have a second daily RT flight from Miami.

But that’s not all. Ferry service on a 370-passenger boat (with A/C, bar, sundeck) has resumed between the sister islands, and the beaches appear in new images even wider and more pink than ever. The Barbuda Belle resort will be the first to reopen on Barbuda on November 1, glamping has arrived with Wild Lotus Antigua, St. James’ Club has seen a US$7 million upgrade, and a luxury Yoga Shed has opened at Sugar Ridge Hotel – an outdoor 968 square feet raised, outdoor studio.

Over the coming months, new properties expected to open include The Hammock, a five-star couples only resort with one-bedroom villas, the Royalton Antigua – and wait for it, the first-ever Waldorf Astoria in the Caribbean.

On the activity side, a new kiteboarding festival will take place during Sailing Week 2019.

BARBADOS

Rihanna’s homeland has been experiencing a continuing surge in US, UK, and Canadian arrivals, including in long term stays. For the past five years, from 2012-2017, Barbados has seen a whopping 44.3 percent increase in US arrivals.

American Airlines has additional flights from Miami starting in December, including a new daily flight from Charlotte, while Air Canada is increasing capacity by 75% with three weekly flights. Copa Airlines is now offering twice-weekly flights out of Panama City.

Aside from hotel renovations and additions, highly anticipated is a first of its kind Virgin Holidays Departure Beach launching in December 2018 – where travelers will get to check in for their flights at Brownes beach and chill (there will be an A/C lounge, bathroom and showering facilities, bar and restaurant on site) for their last hours in Bim. Last but not least, a 12-story tower Hyatt is expected for 2020 in historic Bridgetown.

BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS

The BVIs are slowly rebounding, with 769 rooms open at the moment. Richard Branson’s Necker Island also just reopened on October 1. More rooms will reopen by December.

BELIZE

With an astounding 17 percent increase in arrivals over the same period last year, Belize is experiencing continued popularity. There are now 12 direct flights between Belize and the US or Canada. Plans are to build a bigger international airport, among other hotel developments such as a Four Seasons coming to Caye Chapel. There is concern that little, beautiful Belize might lose its character with so much expansion in big hotels, but tourism representatives assured that it would not. Time will tell. For the latest, you can always follow my blog, as well as my guidebooks on Belize.

DOMINICA

As of July 2018, 57% of Dominica’s hotel rooms are available again (or 484 rooms total), while 19 of 23 official sites and attractions have reopened.  The majority of roads are drivable, water and cell service are reactivated, and ferry services to neighboring Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St Lucia are running, as well as a new service from Portsmouth to Pointe-a-Pitre.

Upcoming for 2019 and 2020 are a range of luxury brand hotels:  a Hilton Curio property called Tranquility Beach, a five-star Cabrits Resort Kempinski,  Anichi Resort – a Marriott Autograph Collection, and Jungle Bay Resort. Meanwhile the island’s many boutique hotels have reopened, including tour guides and dive operators. Carnival is scheduled for March 4-5, 2019, if you’re looking for a good reason to “rediscover Dominica.”

GRENADA

It seems Grenada was all over the travel magazines over the last year. And that hot trend shows in the numbers, with a 10.55% increase in overnight arrivals this year.

Aside from hotel upgrades, a new Kimpton Kawana Bay and Silversands Grenada are opening this winter, and new safari jeep tours have been added to go “off the beaten track.”

JAMAICA

Aside from soaring arrivals, among the biggest news is the new S Hotel on Doctor Caves Beach, a US$75 million upgrade to Half Moon Resort underway in celebration of its 65th anniversary, the expansion of Montego Bay Airport, and an upcoming Hard Rock Hotel opening in Montego Bay.

The king of Caribbean events, Jamaica never disappoints. A new Kingston City Marathon will launch March 15-17. And check out the new “Join me in Jamaica” marketing campaign which sells Jamaica from a local’s point of view (many of whom are famous artists or chefs).

PUERTO RICO

Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, joined the press conference via video conference call. Puerto Rico has experienced a steady resurgence and tourism growth, with 135 hotels now open, and cruise ships running. Certain attractions have reopened, including parts of El Yunque.

And the most intriguing news of all: a new, massive entertainment complex known as The District will open end of 2019 near San Juan Convention Center. Dean described it as a sort of “Times Square with a Latin feel and Caribbean flavor,” before reminding everyone that Puerto Rico’s story does not end with Maria.

THE BAHAMAS

The Bahamas, our host for this year’s SOTIC conference, made clear their plan to emphasize the 16 destinations available within the archipelago, beyond Nassau, as well as Bahamian culture, cuisine, and heritage.

The islands saw just over six percent increase in US visitor arrivals, and 13.5% from Canada. American Airlines and Bahamas Air have expanded service, and the newly opened Baha Mar features three properties, including a Grand Hyatt. A host of boutique hotels have also opened on Eleuthera, Exuma, and Harbour Island. Personally, I’m looking for a reason to return for the annual Junkanoo on New Year’s Day.

A New Dawn

 

A ten-minute walk outside the Atlantis, Potters Cay is the perfect local spot to indulge in a fresh made Bahamian conch salad.

While attending various culture-related sessions at SOTIC, I realized I must’ve been well ahead of my time. I don’t say this to boast at all, but in truth, I’ve been encouraging cultural and community tours, sustainable tourism, and seeing the islands for much more than sand and sea since I started exploring the region over 10 years ago. And when there was no social media nor email, cultural curiosity is what motivated me to move away from my parents for the first time, to explore other parts of the world. It’s what brought me to the Caribbean, and it’s how many of us traveled pre-Internet.

Fast forward to today, and the topic is hot on everyone’s mind. With disruptive models such as AirBnB taking hold around the islands, as well as a rise in travelers’ desires to “experience” and “live like a local,” destinations have been pushed into considering what they offer in order to compete with the rest of the world. They’ve been challenged to show a more authentic face of the Caribbean beyond those fruity drinks. To talk more about their painful pasts. To take travelers into farms and villages. To give more beyond the comfort of a resort.  

“Post Irma, many TV crews reflected on the islands as a place for vacation. Anguilla was remembered as a great place to dine in the NYT. I can understand the need to market the region. But what about the intangible cultures? Whose histories and heritage is utilized in creating the tourism narrative ?” – Dr Marcia Burrowes, Lecturer in Cultural Studies at UWI, Cave Hill Campus

For instance, in an effort to appeal to millenials and their hunger for “experiential travel,” St. Lucia announced its upcoming village tourism project. Eight of its villages will be renovated so visitors can tour the chattel houses, lime in rum shops, and have culinary experiences.

It makes me wonder, when it comes to packaged tourism of this kind, whether there’s a risk of diluting the culture at the expense of the very thing meant to be preserved. I guess time will tell.

On the flip side of this effort to showcase “local life,” much of the same old remains as well: all inclusive luxury resorts built amid poor communities (“modern day plantations” as UNWTO’s Taleb Rifai described them), raised walls blocking that sea view from people with already too few amenities, and governments that welcome investors offering “all in one” stops (i.e. resorts selling rooms, food, and also their own tours rather than send out their guests).

“We delight in growth of arrivals. But do the interests of tourists supersede those or citizens? Is it sustainable growth?” – Dr. Deborah Hickling Gordon

Some of my media colleagues believe the experiential traveler is a myth for the US; they believe that most Americas just want to lounge – at budget all inclusive resorts, or at luxury hotels. Whether or not that’s true, tourism can only continue to bear steady and healthy fruit in the Caribbean when governments consider and involve their people in the decision making, and when they share a piece of that big tourism pie. Improving the quality of life on the ground improves the quality of the escape for all.

“Commoditization without exploitation”

On a panel titled “Commoditization without exploitation,” the discussion focused on the double edged sword of tourism: does luring more visitors into protected areas cause harm to the destination, and who benefits from these excursions?

Exploring elusive, secluded Eleuthera on a day trip from Nassau.

Although many of these panels were structured as academic lectures rather than as debates encouraging discussion, they were a start in voicing difficult topics for the region.

After living in the Caribbean long term – from Jamaica to Belize, Grenada to the Dominican Republic – exploring, and writing about it for consumers, I continue to believe that showcasing culture and roots is the way to keep the Caribbean distinct from other regions – not in a packaged, “let’s go see the natives” way (can we cancel those “safaris,” please?) – but in a normal, people to people exchange through meetings, dinners, or homestays, locally run tours, and workshops, all while bringing about income to the communities visited.

“If you build it, we will come. There are always more ancestors to get to know.” – Dianne Warmsley, Genealogist from Roots Run Deep

I also believe that the more Caribbean tourism gets comfortable being itself, and embracing everything that it is and represents, rather than chasing after every “luxury” development project disguised as another enclave, or copying foreign trends of the moment, the more the chance of attracting travelers for the long term.

And that, my friends, includes the marketing campaigns. For many Caribbean destinations, there needs to be a complete turnaround from the same old image of a white couple running along the beach hand in hand, or the European family enjoying their vacation.

How often have you watched a Caribbean destination campaign video and wondered: where are the vacationing Black kids, or the Black couple honeymooning (no, the bartenders-cooks-maids-surfers-dancers don’t count)? And where are the solo travelers of color (an ever-increasing group, most of whom travel more than three times a year)? Where are the disabled, and the older or plus size women enjoying themselves on the beach, even if they’re not in skimpy bikinis? The same could be said of some tourism boards’ social media feeds on Facebook or Instagram (way to go, Barbados, for your inclusivity online). As a female journalist of color, and member of the US media, I not only notice these things, I monitor them.

Below is the new “Rhythm never stops” campaign – announced during #SOTIC2018. I’m curious to know what you think.

If we are to reinvent the Caribbean for the long term and insure a successful industry for generations to come, a big shake up in mindsets is needed, top to bottom. Because representation matters, travel is for everyone, and visitor demographics are incredibly diverse for this region. Missed representation results in missed dollars, and missed platforms.  

Today’s Caribbean is different than the one we knew years ago. It’s still waiting to be managed and marketed in a way that communities – not just heads of state – benefit from a piece of that big tourism pie, all while travelers get that “real” experience they’re seeking. That’s when people will care to distinguish one island destination from another and how they’ll get inspired to edit their bucket lists.

For now, I was glad to see a growing consciousness at SOTIC 2018 surrounding the need to stop showing the Caribbean merely as a commodity, but rather as “a region of roots.” I hope that in the coming years, the discussion will continue and turn into action and unity. And I hope that Caribbean governments will realize the importance of striking a balance between attracting the right kind of investments and building a sustainable, safe destination for all – visitors and locals – while showing off the region’s true value: a diverse population with a unique heritage and past.

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The Caribbean Tourism Organization and The Bahamas invited me to attend and cover SOTIC2018. The above opinions, as always, are my own.

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Stay tuned for more images from excursions around the Bahamas with Bahamas Tourism. 

Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel journalist, photographer, and guidebook author specializing in the Caribbean region. Her work has been published in major travel publications, including CNN, AFAR, Delta Sky, Lonely Planet, Shermans Travel, and BBC, among others. A self-professed "culture-holic," Lily left her native Ethiopia at age one, fast developing a passion for the expat Caribbean life. In 2008, she ditched her US corporate law career for the road and created Sunshine and Stilettos—a travel photography blog showcasing authentic ways to experience the Caribbean, through culture and nature. Lily has since partnered with Caribbean tourism boards and travel brands on major content projects. She also authors print guidebooks on three destinations, including Belize, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Read more on her site, LebawitGirma.com

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