As Trinidad and Tobago looks to offset lower hydrocarbons revenues, a strong increase in tourist arrivals is providing a more optimistic outlook for diversification.
The government is aiming to leverage niche offerings in the cultural and heritage segment to see this growth continue.
Inbound arrivals increased by 6.6% last year to nearly 440,000 visitors, according to the Ministry of Tourism, well above the global average of 4.4% growth.
The 2015 total was up on the five-year average of 423,000, though still short of the nearly 455,000 recorded in 2012.
The increase in visitors last year was powered by strong performance of the cruise ship segment, with ship-borne arrivals increasing from 33,700 in 2014 to nearly 80,000 last year, as per data from the Port Authority of T&T, marking the best results in six years.
While the Caribbean as a whole registered a 1.3% increase in cruise arrivals in 2015, T&T recorded the strongest growth in the region, at 104.4%, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation.
Cruise ship arrivals to Tobago, meanwhile, more than tripled. A major factor in this growth is the island’s success in attracting more and bigger cruise ships.
In 2014 some 29 vessels visited Tobago, bringing an average of 1025 passengers each. Last year there were 52 ships, with an average of 1243 passengers per ship.
In addition to robust results in the cruise ship segment, T&T has benefitted from improved connectivity to the US – its largest source market.
Arrivals from the US increased by 12.7% last year, the Tourism Development Company (TDC) reported, thanks in large part to new flights offered from JetBlue. The US-based airline launched services to Port of Spain from New York and Fort Lauderdale in the first half of 2014.
With Air Canada looking to resume coverage of the Trinbagonian market in late 2016, there could be further growth in North American arrivals ahead. Last month the carrier announced plans to open a seasonal direct flight from Toronto to Port of Spain, subject to government approval.
Importantly for the industry, T&T enjoys year-round popularity with visitors. Average arrivals per month reached 36,650 last year, up from 34,400 in 2014, with a high of 48,000 in February during Carnival and a low of 29,000 in September.
North America continued to be the largest source market for the country’s tourism sector, with arrivals from the US (39%) and Canada (13%) accounting for the majority of last year’s total.
The steady influx of tourists throughout the year makes for consistent foreign currency flows and employment levels.
Overseas tourists contributed an estimated TT$14.1bn ($2.1bn) to the twin-island nation’s economy last year, equivalent to 8.5% of GDP, according to figures from the World Tourism & Travel Council (WTTC).
This contribution is expected to increase by 1% this year and by 2.4% per annum through to 2026 to reach TT$18.1bn ($2.7bn).
In employment terms, the industry generates some 72,500 jobs, directly and indirectly, which is equivalent to 11.3% of the national total, according to the WTTC. By 2026, it is expected to reach 77,000.
Looking ahead, the T&T government is aiming to attract more foreign visitors by leveraging cultural and heritage tourism.
Better promoting of events such as the country’s annual Carnival could be a vehicle for sector growth, according to Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, minister of community development, culture and the arts.
“Greater emphasis is being placed on capacity building in the local sector, though this may be easier to carry out in some segments than others,” she told OBG.
While some 35,959 tourists came to T&T for Carnival this year, down 6.9% from last year, according to figures from the TDC, the event has tended to attract less international interest than Carnival celebrations in Brazil, for example.
By improving the overall Carnival product, as well as the production quality and creativity of events, Gadsby-Dolly sees the event becoming a more prominent international attraction.
“We are aware that there are many areas within the industry that need to be fixed, maybe even a total overhaul, which we are prepared to execute,” she said. “In so doing, we can brand events such as the T&T Carnival, something that will be authentically ours.”
Keith Chin, CEO of the TDC, has highlighted other niche segments, including culinary and ecotourism, as other potential avenues for sector growth.
“We have special offerings within these niches to attract visitors,” he told attendees at a tourism symposium in May. “We must ensure our tourism products meet and exceed quality standards.”
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