From carnivals and beach resorts to golf and cruise, the charms of the Caribbean remain as compelling as ever for US travelers, says Ben Lerwill
Golden beaches. Rum punch. Green hills, lazy days and long evenings. In the Caribbean, you don’t need to look far to find selling points. It’s perfect territory for a break in the sun. The archipelago’s long crescent of tropical islands stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the tip of South America, so there’s ample variety. From the carnival clamor of Trinidad to the beach resorts of the Dominican Republic, it caters for travelers of all tastes. Nature-lovers, golfers, party animals, families, cruise passengers, luxury-seekers and beach bums have all been drawn here for decades.
“The Caribbean’s a special proposition,” says Jason Scarth, president of Britannia Golf. “The warm weather means you can escape the winter in the north, and typically it’s somewhere that’s easy to get to, and it can fit most budgets too.”
It’s true the Caribbean is convenient for US vacationers and its range of hotels and experiences cover everything from budget-friendly to five-star plus. These assets, together with its mix of sunshine, activities and downtime options, have won the region countless accolades. The most recent ASTA member survey saw the Caribbean ranked third as an International Hot Spot, while the latest figures from the Caribbean Tourism Organization show US arrivals have grown steadily for each of the past five years.
Based on 2014 figures, islands with strong year-on-year increases in US visitors include Grenada (up 18.3%), St Lucia (up 12.8%), the Dominican Republic (up 12.4%) and the Cayman Islands (up 9.8%). Other spots set to fare well are Barbados, which saw new direct Delta flights from New York and Atlanta in December, and the Bahamas, which has a raft of new hotels, such as the four-star resort Baha Mar. The recent easing of restrictions to Cuba could have a marked effect too.
And while the Caribbean remains synonymous with beach relaxation, Cathy Sanchez, president and executive travel consultant at Easy Escapes Travel, highlights the importance of another area of the market: “We’ve noticed a trend with our Caribbean clients looking to check items off their bucket-lists such as skydiving, zip-lining, diving, culinary classes and visiting plantations,” she says.
The Caribbean, like so many tourism regions, is in the process of change; adapting to the demands of new markets while keeping traditional charms intact. Following on is a snapshot of the major developments taking place on the islands…
When the New York-based firm Resonance Consultancy released the results of its Caribbean Tourism Quality Index earlier this year, Anguilla was named among the region’s top five countries for quality tourism products and experiences. If you’re in search of high-end boltholes (Ellen DeGeneres and Beyonce vacation here) and some of the best beaches in the entire archipelago, you’re in the right place. Big news at present is the return of luxury resort Malliouhana, which opened its doors again in November 2014 after a three-year renovation. The clifftop hotel, offering 44 suites, two infinity pools and a spa, is now being operated by Auberge Resorts Collection. Originally opened in 1984, the resort also has 25 acres of landscaped gardens. Anguilla itself has an international airport, but can also be accessed with ease from St Maarten.
US visitor numbers to the Bahamas in the first half of 2014 rose to more than 725,000, and this trend looks set to continue. This, at least, will be the aim of Nassau’s long-awaited Baha Mar project, a new mega-resort reported to have cost $3.5bn. Billed as ‘The Bahamian Riviera’, it comprises four hotels: a Grand Hyatt, an SLS Lux, a Rosewood and its centerpiece, the Baha Mar Casino & Hotel — together offering a total of 2,200 rooms, with the casino alone yielding more than 100,000sq ft of gaming. And in addition to the hotels, Baha Mar will also feature an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and more than 30 restaurants and bars.
St Kitts and Nevis
Serving up two vacation destinations in one, the pretty twin-island nation of St Kitts and Nevis offers a well-rounded Caribbean package. You’ll find all the classic Caribbean elements such as beaches, mountains, rainforest hikes and plantation houses — not to mention that all-important mellow pace of life. Things don’t stand still, of course. Currently making headlines is the $600m Kittitian Hill development, which officially opened at the beginning of December. Based in the north of St Kitts, the smart, sustainability-focused complex currently comprises the 84-residence Belle Mont Farm and an ‘edible’ 18-hole golf course (it has copious fruit trees), but once finished it will also feature The Village — complete with farmers’ markets and art workshops — and the Yaya Groves forest villas. Its inauguration coincided with the opening of the St Kitts Eco-Park, an attraction offering superb coastal views, while over on tiny Nevis, a range of new luxury villas were introduced in January at the Paradise Beach Nevis.
The reopening of Sandals Barbados at the end of January 2015 followed a 10-month closure to allow for an extensive $65m facelift. Its 280 new-look rooms and suites are spread across three ‘village’ zones, while guests can also enjoy 11 dining choices and the largest pool in Barbados. Some of the suites have a ‘swim-up’ design, while other new features include a Club Sandals Lounge and an expanded spa. Out-of-resort tours and attractions are also being promoted to Sandals guests keen to see and experience more of the island. The biggest island news, however, is in the aviation sector. In a major boost to its appeal to the North American market, new direct Delta flights to Barbados from Atlanta and New York launched in December after a three-year hiatus, departing the US on Thursdays and Saturdays. The flights operate with Boeing 737 aircraft that can seat up to 160 people. Tying in with the launch, Delta Vacations is now offering Barbados packages — with a particular focus on the aforementioned Sandals resort.
Turks and Caicos
Arriving into Turks and Caicos has been made easier following the completion of a $10m expansion at Providenciales airport (the terminal building was doubled in size and the departure lounge overhauled). It’s welcome news for a destination that’s also seen new weekly Delta services from Boston and New York. There have also been developments for those arriving on private flights. Blue Heron Aviation, partnering with Signature Flight Support, opened a new Fixed Base Operation in the country last year, with a 6,800sq ft terminal and 11 acres of aircraft and hangar facilities. In addition, Beaches Turks & Caicos has completed the renovation of 12 suites.
Things are going well for the Dominican Republic. Between January and November last year, it saw 1.6 million US visitors, a more than 12% increase on the previous year. It’s not tricky to see the appeal — as well as its 16 national parks and 250 miles of coastline, it has a stock of over 60,000 rooms and seven airports. Its hotel scene has been further bolstered by the east coast arrival of the all-suite, adult-only Chic Punta Cana by Royalton, featuring 323 suites, poolside cabanas, an outdoor dance floor and an oxygen bar. The same can be said of the family-friendly Dreams Dominicus La Romana, opening this summer on the south coast with 478 rooms and suites.
Known as ‘the spice island’ thanks to its suitability for growing nutmeg and mace, Grenada has sharpened its tourism focus in recent times — and it’s paying off. The start of 2014 saw the launch of the Grenada Tourism Authority, replacing the previous tourist board with a company more focused on attracting visitors. Greater social media exposure has been a focus, and while overall US visitor numbers are small compared to many other islands, they’re rising markedly. This has been partly helped by the arrival of Sandals La Source, a 225-room resort that marked the brand’s first steps into Grenada when it debuted at the very end of 2013. Some 2,000 North American agents visited the resort as part of a mega-fam program in November 2014. The island has also had a significant increase in cruise passengers, with arrivals increasing 29% year-on-year in 2014. Contributing to this, Carnival Cruise Lines has returned to Grenada for the 2014/15 season after a 15-year absence.
Southwest Airlines is launching a Saturday-only flight from Houston to Aruba in March, having also begun flying to the island from Orlando in mid-2014. Both routes were formerly served by AirTran, which is now a subsidiary of Southwest, but they still mark fresh impetus for an island where US visitors represented more than half of the million-plus tourist arrivals last year. As well as its package resorts and long beaches, Aruba has developed a reputation for its events. There are annual festivals dedicated to jazz, electronica and soul music (Robin Thicke headlined last year’s Soul Beach Music Festival), while carnival festivities take place each January and February, culminating in a Grand Parade. The calendar also features fishing, golf, sailing, soccer and running events. In hotel news, major renovations have now been completed at the Holiday Inn Resort Aruba — Beach Resort & Casino, which has close to 600 rooms.
Cuba: The Obama administration announced in January this year that it was relaxing certain travel restrictions into Cuba, making access to the island much easier for US visitors after decades of a travel embargo. The new measures mean Americans can visit Cuba without applying for a special license, although the travel still has to meet certain criteria.
Sint Eustatius: The vacation island, known locally as Statia, enjoys real renown for both its hiking and scuba potential. Its subaquatic credentials were boosted further at the end of 2014 when it was chosen to host the Caribbean’s second ever UNESCO Foundation Course on Underwater Archaeology. statiatourism.com
Antigua & Barbuda: Around $42m has been invested in modernizing Antigua’s V.C. Bird International Airport, near capital city St John’s, which is set to open fully during the
first half of 2015. On the accommodation front, South Point is a new 23-suite boutique resort on the island’s historic English Harbour. antigua-barbuda.org