Caribbean tourism has been thriving in recent years and the future looks even brighter, but many challenges remain, Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association CEO Frank Comito said Friday.
Comito, a Bahamas-based tourism expert with decades of experience in the industry, was speaking at the 2015 V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association General Meeting at the Ritz Carlton on St. Thomas.
According to Comito, 2014 was generally a good year for Caribbean tourism. Regional arrivals went up by 5.9 percent, he said, going up by 3.9 percent in the Virgin Islands. Occupancy in the territory went up by 5.1 percent, above the average Caribbean increase of 1.5 percent.
Comito also shared a 2012 study commissioned by the Nassau-Paradise Island Promotion Board that measured the strength of the image of popular Caribbean destinations. The U.S. Virgin Islands topped the list, the study showed, beating the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Aruba and Cancun.
The same study also put the Virgin Islands in the third spot for most preferred Caribbean destination, trailing the Bahamas and Aruba.
Comito noted from experience that hospitality in the Virgin Islands has moved from a “strong ‘suck-teeth’ mentality” to becoming highly professional and hospitable.
“We can look at it as half-full and feel encouraged,” Comito said. “We are doing some good things, but we have got to look at the half empty part as well. We cannot rest, particularly when we’ve got some huge challenges globally on our price competitiveness and our quality of service.”
The region needs to work on price competitiveness, according to Comito, because it is a significant and quantifiable factor in the competitiveness of a tourist destination as a whole. As of 2012, he said, studies showed that 27 percent of vacationers are willing to spend between $1,000 and $1,499 for an air inclusive vacation to the Caribbean with one companion. Some 25 percent are willing to pay a little higher — between $1,500 and 1,999 — but the percentages drop significantly as the price goes higher.
Driving down pricing, however, is a challenge in the Virgin Islands for the same reasons that it is a challenge in the region. Soaring utility costs, high cost of access and rising government taxes inflate the cost of doing business, he said. On top of that, the region also has to work on improving the overall quality of the vacation experience.
To address all these challenges, Comito said, collaboration and partnerships are key, and the private sector must take the lead. Advocating for tourism must also be based on facts; policies, for instance, must have direct impact on tourism revenues, jobs and tax revenues, according to Comito.
As for the re-opening of Cuba, Comito said the country is going to be a competitor in the U.S. market share, which comprises more than 80 percent of tourist visits in most Caribbean destinations.
“One can argue that the birth of tourism in the places like the Bahamas and the USVI is directly attributed to Cuba closing up,” he said.
Comito added, however, that Cuba opening up does not mean the death of tourism for the rest of the Caribbean. It could mean greater marketing power for the region, he said, and could up the ante on healthy competition.
“I view it as an opportunity to get better,” he said.