SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – High unemployment rates and sluggish economies didn’t keep foreigners from hitting Caribbean beaches last year.
More than 23 million tourists visited the islands, about a 5% increase from 2009 when 22.1 million visitors arrived, according to preliminary year-end figures from the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO).
The growth represented a rebound from a dismal 2009 when recessions in many countries, including the U.S., Spain and the United Kingdom kept visitors home. CTO figures show visits by Americans and Canadians surged across the islands in 2010, while travel by Europeans continued to decline.
“People are just sick of staying home. They’re telling us ‘that’s it. We’ve had enough,’” said Susie Vanderkamp, co-owner of Cruise Connection LLC, a Missouri-based travel agency that sells trips to the Caribbean. “They are looking for deals. It’s all about price right now.”
The Dominican Republic led all Caribbean destinations in 2010. The country set a record in both visitors arriving via air and total visitors, which includes cruise ship passengers.
For the first time, the country surpassed four million visitors arriving by air, with 4.12 million coming through its nine international airports, a 3% increase from 2009. The country welcomed 4.6 million visitors, including cruise passengers, marking close to a 4% increase compared to 2009.
Like many Caribbean nations, the Dominican Republic is heavily dependent on tourism revenue.
A study by Oxford Economics estimated that travel and tourism – including the industries that indirectly benefit from them – supported 1.8 million jobs and contributed US$39.5 billion to Caribbean economies in 2010.
“The recovery in international tourism is good news, especially for those developing countries that rely on the sector for much-needed revenue and jobs,” Taleb Rifai, the secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency, said in a statement.
The organization found international tourist arrivals around the world jumped by almost 7% in 2010 to 935 million visits. That was a significant rebound from 2009, when travel fell by 4%.
The drop took a toll on new construction in the Caribbean, which is starting to recover.
The consulting firm Smith Travel Research (STR), which analyzes the hotel industry, told Infosurhoy.com that of 5,423 new hotel rooms that were supposed to open in 2010 throughout the Caribbean last year, just 3,800 did.
The firm predicts 7,590 new hotel rooms will be opened in 2011.
“The Caribbean and Mexico [hotel development] pipeline has picked up since the same time last year,” said Lana Yoshii, vice president of STR.
Hoteliers didn’t benefit much from the increased travel last year. Occupancy rates at hotels rose only slightly to 61.1% from 60.7% in 2009. And revenue per available room – or revpar, a key gauge of the health of a hotel market – averaged only US$98.66 in 2010, the second-lowest total in the past seven years and only slightly better than 2009.
Vanderkamp said clients are interested in Caribbean destinations, but many are downgrading their plans.
“There are a lot of people who used to go to a five-star hotel and now they’re looking at a four-star place, or they are trimming back from seven days to five days or from five days to three days,” she said.
On the streets of Santo Domingo’s colonial zone on an 88-degree sunny day, Kimberly Jones, of Illinois, said she remained unsure about the economy.
But she was willing to spend money to escape a brutal winter.
“We didn’t feel like things were stable enough [last year] to travel out of the country. We stayed close to home and did more long weekend trips and stuff like that,” said Jones, who snagged a cheap flight to Santo Domingo.
She planned to spend two nights in Santo Domingo before traveling to an all-inclusive beach resort for three nights with her husband and two children.
“I’m glad we could get to a warm place this winter. It’s been awful,” she said while poking around gift shops.