By S Brian Samuel
Op-Ed Contributor

By now, most (but not all) Caribbean countries have submitted their first half 2014 tourism statistics to the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO). It makes for some interesting reading. Overall, the Caribbean recorded a weighted average growth rate of 5.2 percent in visitor arrivals during the first half of 2014 (some countries reported shorter periods, but all included the bulk of the winter tourist season). This sector performance reads like my old school report cards: Good - but could do better! Cruise ship arrivals also increased, but at a lower rate of 4.6 percent.

behind the numbers, we can identify winners and losers. Montserrat recorded the highest growth rate - 35 percent - but this was from a very low base. Of the recognized tourist destinations, Grenada recorded the highest growth in tourist arrivals: 18.6 percent. It is easy to put this down to the opening of the 225-room Sandals LaSource in December 2013. But happily this is not the case; the first half of 2014 saw an increase in tourist arrivals across the board; not just Sandals. If Sandals did an average occupancy of 75 percent; they would have been responsible for about 5 percent of Grenada's growth; meaning that the rest of the tourist sector saw an increase of about 13 percent - a creditable achievement after so many years of decline.


The Caribbean's tourism juggernauts, the Dominican Republic and Cuba (collectively responsible for 48 percent of all Caribbean arrivals), continue to chug along; recording growth rates of 8.5 and 4.6 percent respectively. The third in the Caribbean big leagues, Jamaica, continues to limp along, showing a growth rate of 1.6 percent for 2014 to date, about the same growth experienced over the last two or three years. Considering the huge investments by Spanish hotel investors in Jamaica over the past decade, this paltry growth rate is disappointing.

Encouragingly, Haiti recorded an increase of 14.9 percent in visitor arrivals in the first three months of 2014. However one wonders how many of these visitors are genuine tourists; versus government and NGO types. Whoever they are, it all helps this beleaguered nation that so badly needs all the help it can get. The government has bold ambitions to develop tourism, particularly on the island of �le-�-Vache along the country's south coast; with plans to build a new international airport, roads, electricity generation, and over a thousand international class resort rooms. How this will square with the desperate poverty afflicting Haiti, including the island itself, remains to be seen.

Collectively, the OECS fared better than the average, showing a growth rate of 6.4 percent in first half 2014. However, the OECS continues to live on the margins, responsible for only 6 percent of all Caribbean arrivals. On the losing end; Suriname, St. Kitts, Curacao and the Bahamas declined, while Barbados continued to flatline.

Where did these new tourists come from? It's a mixed bag; Grenada, St Lucia and the DR all show strong growth out of the United States; while others have done well in European markets. The USA continues to be the dominant market for Caribbean tourism, accounting for 38.4 percent of all arrivals in the first half of 2014.

However some industry insiders are secretly dreading the day that Cuba finally opens up to US visitors, and releases a flood of pent-up demand. I imagine that this would negatively impact the mainstream Caribbean destinations: DR, Jamaica and the Bahamas; I don't see Cuba having too much of an impact on the OECS.

It can't be long now - can it?

Interestingly enough, about the same number of cruise passengers as stay-over tourists visited the Caribbean during first half 2014: 8.5 million versus 8.6 million respectively (not including Cozumel and Cancun). Martinique has shown huge growth in cruise ship arrivals; up 69.8 percent over the first�three months of the year. Dominica and Belize, the nature destinations, also showed strong growth.


Belize Ranked Second Fastest Growing Caribbean Tourist Destination

Increasing numbers of tourists uncover Belize treasures - Figures from the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) show that Belize ranked the second fastest growing Caribbean tourist destination (behind only Turks and Caicos Islands) with an increase of 11.6% in tourist numbers in February 14, compared to the previous year. Belize registered 32,712 tourist arrivals in February: Travel and Tourism is expected to contribute an additional 4.1% to Belize's GDP in 2014.

The main markets that have been visiting Belize are US visitors (an increase of 11%) and European visitors (an increase of 26.6%) in the first quarter of 2014. The increase in tourism in the country is not being seen as only an immediate trend as a reports from the CTO forecast an even higher 4.4% annual rise in the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Belize's GDP from 2014 to 2024. This is a trend that sees more positive results for the country including an additional 10,000 jobs being generated in the Belizean travel and tourism sector.

Landing on top of the tourism sector and greatly contributing, largely for the most part, in the industry for the country is the island of Ambergris Caye. It is the largest island in the country and the top destination for visitors from around the globe. It has been named "The Number One Island in the World" for two consecutive years by Trip Advisor in its Reader's Choice Awards 2013 and 2014.

San Pedro Warden for the US Embassy, Wil Lala, conducts a census every two years on the island to gather data on the hotels, condos and vacation homes so that the US Embassy can better serve the American citizens in case of an emergency or disaster. His census provides valuable information specific for Ambergris Caye.

The economic contribution of Ambergris Caye is huge and to appreciate how much money is generated on the island, it is important to point out some statistics. San Pedro has 154 registered hotels and resorts out of a total of 765 in the entire country. That is equivalent to 1,774 rooms out of the 7,210 registered in the entire country.

According to government figures, the tourism industry is the second largest revenue earner for the country (second to agriculture) and the main economic driving force for Ambergris Caye. Tourism contributed an estimated $1.2 billion to the country's economy in 2013. It is estimated that 46% of that revenue collected by the GOB was contributed through the economic activities on Ambergris Caye. That figure is approximately $552 million.

GOB's sources of tourism revenue are through accommodation taxes, Hotel Application and License Fees, Live-Aboard Taxes, Cruise Head Tax, Tour Guide Licensing Fees, Tour Operator Licensing Fees, Qualified Retirement Program [QRP] Fees, General Sales Tax on Restaurant and Bar Services and Tours, Business Tax on Accommodation, Restaurant and Bar Services and Tours and Business Tax on the Sale of Condominiums.

Mr. Lala's report indicates that due to the recession and past over-development, 2014 has seen only a net increase over 2012 of approximately 100 rooms/units. However with the uptick in the economy, the island is seeing nearly 300 more rooms under construction with about 100 of these to be opened in time for the high season this December 2014.

Most of the new units are north of the cut/bridge and are on the high end of the amenity scale. Some of the older condos are seeing a decrease in the number of rooms in the rental pool, as long-term owners who bought the units as an investment are now retiring and occupying their units.

In his survey, Lala indicates that there are 1896 units on the island for 2014. A unit is a guest accommodation that can range from a single room to a five-bedroom villa.

It is of no surprise that Belize is growing in popularity, with its diversity in flora and fauna, the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere and a cultural mix up like no other, the country offers attractions, hospitality, serenity and an escape that rivals other top destinations around the world and still remains one of the unspoiled jewels of the region.

Ambergris Today to see more photos in the Ambergris Today