Diversified Caribbean Tourism – Driving the Yachting and Marine Services Sector

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The traditional “Sun, Sea, and Sand” tourism model has become saturated in the Caribbean region. Sunseekers who traditionally search for beachfront, all-inclusive resorts, now have an excessive selection of destinations, price points, and formats to choose from. Although successful resort operators who base their attraction strategies on effective direct marketing, higher service levels, premium bar and food menus, and modern, well located facilities, will usually achieve solid occupancy levels in high season, there is a significant paradigm shift in the development of diversified tourism product throughout the Caribbean in order to expand the overall tourism sector.

Why is this happening? Simple: the changing demands of the client. In the past, the typical tourist was satisfied with leaving their cold winters behind, boarding a direct flight to their chosen Caribbean destination, and wallowing on a beach chair for a week or two with their rum punches in hand. But a new generation of tourists are looking for something different. Demographics, improved global health care, and a renewed attitude toward fitness, adventure, and exploration, have all combined to create a new category of tourist. No longer satisfied with just lying on a beach, today’s tourist is looking to visit Caribbean destinations that offer something unique and active. Eco-tourism, adventure tourism, yachting tourism, historic tourism, and health and wellness tourism, are new categories that are being developed throughout the Caribbean to appeal to this new class of tourist demand.

Grenada: Sailing
A couple of sailing boats off the coast of Grenada. Photo: © Grenada Tourism Authority.

In small island economies where tourism still generates about 65% of the national GDP, serious attention is being paid to this. Following the recent recession, the Caribbean was hard hit with falling tourism visits, and the industry realized they needed to react by offering a different menu of tourism offerings. Historically complacent, many Caribbean destinations reacted slowly, and only in the last few years have they began to move towards a new brand of tourism products. Several islands including Dominica, Anguilla, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts & Nevis, and Montserrat, have been proactive in taking a new approach, by developing ‘niche strategies’ based on their respective natural and historical advantages, and building on what they have to offer that differentiates them from their larger neighboring islands.

One such niche sector that offers substantial growth opportunity to these destinations and remains relativelyuntapped, is the ‘Yachting and Marine Services’ sector. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in a 2014 study stated:

“Although tourism has been a major economic sector in the Caribbean since the mid-1960s, the sector now faces significant challenges as competition intensifies in the global tourism market. These challenges include environmental impacts, and the need for continued high levels of public investment in order to sustain the tourism product. The precariousness of the sector was made starkly evident with the onset of the global recession in 2009, when the sector recorded significant decline. Notwithstanding some limited recovery since that time, the recent experience highlighted the need for Caribbean countries to undertake more vigorous efforts towards diversifying their economies in general, and enhancing their tourism sectors in particular. One area identified for specific development is yachting and marina services, a sub-sector which is widely regarded as having significant economic potential.”
ECLAC, 2014

The Caribbean remains one of the most naturally beautiful regions in the world for yachting, gifted with an archipelago of volcanic and coral islands, strung out from the Bahamas in the north, to Grenada in the south, set out in a generally north-south direction to take full natural advantage of the westerly trade winds. Idyllic coves and bays, turquoise waters lined with white sand beaches, and relatively short transit distances between islands, make this one of the ideal cruising grounds in the world.

British Virgin Islands: West End
West End harbor in the British Virgin Islands one of the more popular Caribbean sailing destinations. Photo: © BVI Tourism Board.

Yachting has always been a significant activity in the Caribbean, but the ‘culture’ of yachting and cruising has typically been the domain of the foreign visitor. Apart from several islands in the Grenadines where traditional Carriacou boat building took place in the 19th century, and in the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, sailing was never really adopted by the local population as a recreational activity. Caribbean sailing activities were limited to transport of agriculture, or other ‘less legal’ inter-island shipping. This apparent disconnect between island tourism activities, and the culture of the international yachting and cruising sector, resulted in the absence of an understanding of the market forces, and consequently, an effective strategy to attract the economic opportunity that this niche sector offered.

More recently however, foreign direct investment in marina infrastructure and marine services started bringing a higher focus to the value of the yachting and cruising industry. Caribbean destinations like St. Lucia, Grenada, the US & British Virgin Islands, and Antigua & Barbuda among others, now offer substantial infrastructure dedicated to the yachting, cruising, and charter sailing business, which have propelled them to the list of high value yachting destinations. Now the region is ripe for expansion and the development of additional marinas, marine services, and even marine technical schools.

Distribution of Marinas in the Caribbean

The opportunity for smaller Caribbean destinations is even more substantial if they take this sector seriously. Many of these islands offer excellent new destinations for yachts transiting the area, with ‘off the grid’ adventure based activities, beautiful beaches, clear crystal waters for diving, and friendly native people that are welcoming to new visitors from the sea. Since the yachting sector is often a new economic tourism category, these smaller islands can experience proportionally higher returns by focusing efforts on this niche industry.

Anguilla has already begun to develop this sector with great success, but other examples would include Montserrat, a small British Overseas Territory located about 30 miles from Antigua & Barbuda to the east, St. Kitts & Nevis to the west, and Guadeloupe to the south. Montserrat was devastated by volcanic activity in 1995 and 1997, which destroyed the capital city of Plymouth and the entire port area. The island is currently developing a new port in the north end of the island in Little Bay, which will provide an excellent opportunity for a new marina developer and operator. Even without this infrastructure in place, yacht visits to the island are increasing by 20% year over year, propelled by visitors eager to visit the recently accessible volcanic exclusion zone and witness the incredible spectacle of a ‘modern day Pompeii’. The Montserrat Yacht Club, chartered in 1967, has been resurrected with over 60 members, and intends to introduce a youth sailing school to attract local youngsters to the sport.

Yachts moored at Little Bay, Montserrat Yachts moored at sunset in Little Bay, Montserrat. Photo: ©Ralph Birkhoff.

If Caribbean destinations like Montserrat can develop the high value yachting and marine services sector it can reap huge rewards, not only from increased visitors, but also from overall awareness of the destination to the global tourism market. In addition, the establishment of a full service marina tends to attract ancillary investment including hotels, retail, service yards, boat dealerships, dive and sport fishing businesses, and even a marine technical school. Direct revenues from cruising permits, anchorage fees, licenses and port charges; create new revenue to public coffers. The impact can be incredibly meaningful to an island with a small population and economic base. Whether a $50m yacht visits a large port or a small one, the benefit to the destination is more or less the same.

Top photo: English harbor in Antigua.

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Ralph Birkhoff

Ralph Birkhoff

Ralph Birkhoff is a foreign investment advisor and economic development consultant, an active member of the Caribbean Marine Association, and Commodore of the Montserrat Yacht Club. He is an avid blue water sailor who has enjoyed many years sailing the islands of the Caribbean where he now makes his home.

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