Islands such as St. John remain enticing playgrounds for North American visitors. (Photo: SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images )
Visitors to the Caribbean are almost guaranteed year-round sunshine and some of the most alluring landscapes on the planet, but behind the scenes many islands are struggling to remain competitive, with impressive visitor arrivals figures frequently papering over ongoing economic and environmental concerns. There are several pros and cons to Caribbean tourism, concerning both cruises and general visitors. Keep these in mind when planning a trip.
With its proximity to Florida and Gulf Coast home ports for most of the major cruise lines, the Caribbean remains the world’s most popular cruise destination, accounting for 44 percent of overall passengers globally. The industry brings in roughly 21 million passengers a year and contributes around $2 billion to the region’s economy. The main reservations about cruise ship tourism, however, are the environmental impact of depositing upwards of 4,000 passengers on some islands whose populations are themselves in five figures, coupled with the fact that cruise ship companies and associations frequently demand expensive upgrades to local infrastructure, costs borne by the island, while benefiting from generous tax breaks themselves.
Tourism remains the lifeblood of many Caribbean islands, ranging from just over a quarter of GDP in Jamaica, through almost a half in the Bahamas. While the income from tourism leads to growth in hotels, transport and the taxi sector, it typically leaves other sectors of the economy starved of investment. Since the vast majority of tourists to the Caribbean come from North America, the region is also vulnerable to events in the United States beyond its control and suffered badly from the downturn following 9/11 and the 2008 economic crash particularly. Likewise, while North American carriers are vital in maintaining air links across the region, services tend to be cut back at short notice during recession and fares between islands remain exorbitant.
The Caribbean is home to nine percent of the world’s coral reef, including the planet’s second largest barrier reef off Belize. Accordingly, the region remains a diver’s paradise and regularly wins awards from top diving publications. However, ongoing reef degradation through over-development and species extinction mean that, based on the most dramatic estimates, Caribbean reefs could disappear entirely by 2034. Nevertheless, the region as a whole has been remarkably proactive in safeguarding a valuable resource. Half of all Caribbean diving occurs within protected marine parks, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, even if these represent just 20 percent of available reef diving sites. While some islands, such as Nevis, Bonaire and St. Kitts, have resisted large-scale development, others, such as Aruba, St. Maarten and Barbados, have allowed vast swathes of beachfront to disappear behind hotels and timeshare resorts.
One of the Caribbean’s greatest obstacles is that too small a proportion of tourism expenditure trickles down to the local economy. According to United Nations Environment Program research, almost 80 percent of tourist expenditure goes to airlines, hotels and international companies, with just 20 percent going to local businesses and workers. All-inclusive hotels, in particular, the majority of which are foreign-owned, employ fewer people per dollar than locally owned hotels and rely on low wages and short-term contracts for their staff to stay competitive. Similarly, while cruise ship passenger numbers continue to grow daily onshore spending tends to drop every year, a shortfall that is exacerbated by cruise lines operating their own private resorts, such as Royal Caribbean International’s Labadee in Haiti, Disney’s Castaway Cay or Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay.
Nick Marshall is a UK-based writer specializing in trends and best-practice in the B2B sector.