"When we are united, we, as the Caribbean, are unstoppable.”
Those were the sentiments of Kenneth Bryan, the Cayman Islands’ Minister of Tourism and newly-elected chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) as he played host to both the CTO’s Business Meetings and Caribbean Youth Tourism Conference and IATA’s fourth annual Caribbean Aviation Day in George Town in Grand Cayman from Sept. 9-15.
As part of the first in-person CTO gathering since the beginning of the pandemic, 16 Caribbean countries provided an update on COVID recovery and strategies for the future.
“What we’re seeing is strong rebound and strong recovery,” said Latia Duncombe, director of general tourism for the Bahamas.
Bryan said the situation is looking positive for the Caymans as well, “judging by the numbers and how they’re trending, I’m confident we are on target to deliver a quarter of a million visitors by end of the year,” adding, “what we're seeing is strong rebound and strong recovery beginning of year was kind of slow but we're now seeing a forward growing trend.”
The confidence is reflected in the fact that nine new properties are in development and set to open between 2023 and 2025 including a Grand Hyatt and a Mandarin Oriental.
Canadians love the Caymans
More Canadians are making the trip to the Caymans with visitation up eight per cent in July of 2022 from July of 2019.
Look for more Canadians to be visiting the Caymans.
“Canada is very, very important to us,” said Bryan. “Canada is a bit farther away but now that we have our new fleet of max jets, we believe this will give us the opportunity to hit every province in Canada.”
Bryan added Vancouver residents will be particularly targeted: “We want to target the western side,” he said, noting the presence of the Asian market in Vancouver and people with a high net worth.
“We have invested more monies in promotion for Canada,” added Rosa Harris, director of tourism for the Cayman Islands, “Yes, it’s a secondary market for us….but we see the return on our investment in Canada.”
St. Kitts rebuilds Canadian market
Attracting Canadians is also a focus for Saint Kitts with Air Canada flights from our country set to resume on Nov. 5 after direct service was suspended during the Canadian government’s non-essential travel advisory.
“In terms of what we are doing to promote the Canada service, we’re working closely with Air Canada and turning in some aggressive campaigns with them including sales and package incentives,” said Ellison "Tommy" Thompson, CEO of the Saint Kitts Tourism Authority.
Look for some island-wide deals to attract travellers, like staying for seven nights and paying five.
Travel agents, meanwhile, can expect food and beverage credits and hotel and resort discounts to come.
“We see this as a great opportunity to rebuild the Canadian market which has always been quite strong for us," said Thompson, adding that webinars and events for Canadian travel agents are on the way.
Saint Lucia is “soaring”
Air Canada direct service to Saint Lucia are also set to resume this fall with weekly hauls set to begin again on Oct. 9.
Original plans called for flights from Pearson to resume in November, but demand saw the schedule bumped up.
“There were quite a lot of restrictions from the Canadian market but quite a lot of work has been done to restock arrivals from Canada,” said Ernest Hilaire, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism.
Hilaire added talks with WestJet are also happening. “Tourism in Saint Lucia is not only back, it is, indeed, soaring,” he added.
Jamaica’s record-setting summer
Over in Jamaica, things are also looking up with Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett, reporting “this summer is now 5,000 more visitors than 2019 which makes it the best summer in the history of tourism in Jamaica."
But Bartlett advised it’s not the time to rest on one’s laurels.
“The reality of recovery is that those who are fortunate enough to recover from where they were, rarely grow beyond,” he said, adding “growth after recovery is rare and pressure so part of my mission is to get there, to have growth after recovery.”
While Canada continues to be an important target for Jamaica, the minister also revealed plans to focus efforts beyond North America, calling Africa “the new frontier” and a market that will be of particular interest including a Caribbean/African tourism forum in February with at least 10 African countries and ministers of tourism collaborating with the CTO about “ways to converge.”
That said, there’s still love for the true north strong and free.
“Canada is our second largest market so it had an impact,” said Bartlett about Canada’s strict travel restrictions, “but the good news is that you're coming back stronger and better and you're a priority…we are definitely committed to Canada.”
However, Bartlett believes the current bounceback, the renewed love of travel isn’t sustainable. Hence the focus on new markets.
An opportunity to “reimagine tourism”
The gathering in Grand Cayman also saw IATA meet for Caribbean Aviation Day, where the theme was “Recover, Reconnect, Revive.”
Peter Cerda, IATA’s regional vice-president, the Americas, kicked the day off by acknowledging that the pandemic “cut the lifeline of many countries that make up this region.”
“What we saw during the pandemic was that decision-making was left to ministers of health who don’t necessarily understand travel and tourism,” Cerda said. “The result was unrealistic protocols.”
With the majority of protocols and restrictions now lifted, several of the Caribbean Aviation Day delegates used the gathering to push for multi-destination tourism and regional interconnectivity within the Caribbean.
“Small destinations across the Caribbean cannot benefit fully from the impact of tourism and travel so we in the Caribbean, the most tourism-dependent region on earth...we have to find a way to recover and to recover well and we cannot recover alone,” said Jamaica’s Bartlett, adding, “this pandemic has given us the opportunity to reimagine tourism.”
Henry Charles Fernandez of the Antigua and Barbuda Ministry of Tourism agreed: “You have passengers now who want a different experience in one trip. I think that we need to understand that when the tide rises, all the boats rise.”
Cerda concurred, saying, “selling the Caribbean as a multi-destination location is key,” adding, “being able to offer a variety of experiences will be the key to success.”
Wayne Panton, premier of the Cayman Islands offered: “We are separated by oceans but joined by a common desire to see the Caribbean flourish.”
Kenneth Bryan cautioned while multi-destination tourism wouldn’t be an immediate success for all Caribbean countries, “there is an opportunity for you here to win…Not every country will be the beneficiary of this right away but you'll be assured that you'll have tourism for decades, for hundreds of years.”
Cerda was more succinct saying: “Follow the Nike slogan. Just do it.”
Grand Cayman in focus
The gathering in the Caymans saw travel media taken on a FAM trip organized by the Cayman Ministry of Tourism and Transport, which included a rum tasting and visits to Cayman Crystal Caves, the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, and the Pedro St. James National Historic Site.
The Crystal Caves are located in a lush tropical forest in Northside, Grand Cayman.
The site features 105 caves, where visitors are treated to unique and impressive stalactite and stalagmite crystal structures formed by single drops of water over a slow passage of time.
The caves, which were discovered in the ‘90s but didn’t open as a tourist attraction until 2016, also feature tropical plant and animal life including parrots and bats. Look for a zipline feature to be added in October.
Next up was a visit to the Botanic Park, home to the endangered Grand Cayman blue iguana and also a breeding ground for birds and other animals native to the Caribbean.
The park features seven attractions including a floral garden, orchid boardwalk, and heritage garden with a children’s attraction currently under construction.
Over at the Pedro St. James National Historic Site just 20 minutes outside of George Town, visitors get a glimpse into the 18th century and the birthplace of democracy in the Cayman Islands as it's the site of the first government assembly in December 1831.
Built using Jamaican slave labour, the site was purchased by the Government of the Cayman Islands in the 1990s and restored.