No such thing as low season in the Caribbean anymore

      No such thing as low season  in the Caribbean anymore

Eden Rock St. Barths. Source: Oetker Collection.

NEW YORK, New York--If you’re thinking of ditching your July 4th barbecue or fall road trip for a Caribbean summer vacation this year, you’re not the only one. Air travel to the Caribbean for the period from June through August 2023 shows a 48% increase in booked flights over the same months in 2019, according to a March 2023 report from travel data firm ForwardKeys for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

The seasonal lines have blurred, with summer now the Caribbean’s new high season. Typically, mid-December through mid-April was the most coveted, costliest time of year to visit, coinciding with frigid winter months in the US, Canada and Europe. The rush would taper off after Easter, ushering in a quieter season of hot, humid, hurricane-prone summer months.

“The pandemic sparked a major rethink about the Caribbean as a year-round destination,” says Simon Neggers, senior vice president of sales, marketing and communications at Oetker Collection, which includes the luxury Jumby Bay Island Resort in Antigua and Barbuda and Eden Rock St. Barths. “Sure, it’s a little hotter, but in general it is the perfect beach weather.”

The initial spark came when Americans couldn’t travel to Europe for summer vacations, Neggers adds. In May 2022, as compared to May 2019, a 30% increase in occupancy came to Jumby Bay Island’s resort suites, and the private villas’ occupancy doubled from May to August.

It’s a boom that other luxury properties are seeing for what used to be a rainy, quiet season that led hotels and restaurants to close for renovations. In 2022, Turks and Caicos Islands’ the Sands, the Palms and the Shore Club “experienced a whole year of almost no downtime. There was no seasonal break,” says Karen Whitt, vice president of sales and marketing at Hartling Group. The occupancy rate at the Palms and the Shore Club increased by 26% compared with 2021, she adds.

Located in an exclusive area on the southern tip of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic (DR), Eden Roc Cap Cana hasn’t experienced a slow summer season for two years, says Rosalynn Castillo, director of sales and marketing.

“Remote work schedules are definitely having an effect on Caribbean travel trends,” says Kandace Douglas, an international lifestyle and real estate consultant in Grenada. “More travellers are vacationing longer and outside of the typical peak travel seasons.”

Maurice Smith, founder of Atlanta, Georgia-based Eugene Toriko, a luxury travel agency, thinks travellers suffer from fear of missing out (FOMO). “I don’t think people really care [about hurricane season – Ed.]. We offer travel insurance in case your trips are disrupted at the last minute. It’s off-peak season, so you have better rates, and that goes a long way now with the airfare rates we’re seeing across the board.”

Smith’s agency is seeing higher demand for the luxury islands such as Antigua, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos. That’s a shift from last year’s booking preference for such destinations in Mexico as Los Cabos, Riviera Nayarit and Puerto Vallarta, he says. Family travel is driving interest in villa rentals for summer vacation, with an uptick in bookings at Jamaica’s GoldenEye, Round Hill and the Caves. The Shore Club’s six 8,800-square-foot villas – plus the Turks and Caicos’ accommodations being mostly condo resorts – bring an advantage, Whitt says, as more groups and couples vacation together.

In the DR, Eden Roc Cap Cana is seeing a similar boom from families seeking private villas and pools, particularly those with teens about to set off for college. A “Fly the Nest” summer package (US $2,500 to $3,500 for a two-bedroom villa per night, plus tax, with a four-night minimum) will kick off this week, offering activities that range from a DR cooking class to a private boat charter.

Increased airline bookings in the low season means good rates can be found on new routes. Consider the route from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta that JetBlue will open on June 15 (one-way fare will start at $313) or its non-stop flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Grenada from August 7 to September 1 (one-way fare starting at $692). Additional summer and fall options include Frontier Airlines’ new non-stop service from Denver, Colorado, Chicago O’Hare and St. Louis, Missouri, to Jamaica’s Montego Bay (starting at $126, one-way, in June).

Summer remains more attractive for hotel prices, too. On average at Oetker Collection’s Caribbean resorts, rates from May to August can drop by up to 35%, Neggers says. While promotions are in place now at Hartling Group’s Turks and Caicos properties, this could change, Whitt says. The Caribbean in summer offers a smart alternative to a more expensive spring break vacation, especially for big families, he adds.

On St. Barths, a livelier summer restaurant scene prevails as businesses stay open, making it easier to get a reservation, Neggers says. “It could be the perfect entry for a first-timer to St. Barths.” Luxury properties whose winter inventory is limited might become more accessible.

This year’s short booking window makes it hard to predict occupancy levels for summer 2023, said some hoteliers who spoke with Bloomberg. (Hopper’s 2023 Trends Report shows a 30% reduction in travel planning time compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic, with trips to regions such as the Caribbean planned up to a week ahead). They’re all optimistic that the trend for busy Caribbean summers will continue.

Eden Rock St. Barths is already seeing near full occupancy in May and high (80%) occupancy levels for June and July, Neggers says, while its 150 private villa rentals on the island show a high level of summer bookings. Silver Sands, on Grenada’s Grand Anse Beach, sees this year’s summer stay occupancy levels up by 40% so far, compared with 2022.

“Families have realised how easy it is to travel in places like the Caribbean,” says Whitt. “I think there was some kind of a psychological shift of, ‘Let’s do this now; we may not have another opportunity, and it’s fine to go ahead for the weekend.’”

Top 10 most-booked destinations for summer 2023 over summer 2019, as of April 5 (results from ForwardKeys Air Ticket Data), are: US Virgin Islands 56% increase; Jamaica 33%; Turks and Caicos Islands 32%; Martinique 31%; Aruba 27%; Curaçao 24%; Puerto Rico 23%; the Dominican Republic 22%; St. Maarten 22%; and The Bahamas 16% ~ Bloomberg

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