There’s a good reason why Grand Cayman’s roads have more traffic, the grocery stores have longer lines and it is harder to get a last-minute restaurant reservation: the island is in the midst of a stay-over tourism boom.
Although it would be easy to attribute the increase in stay-over tourists to the effects to competitive destinations in the Eastern Caribbean from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, Cayman Islands Department of Tourism statistics show that the country started setting monthly visitor air arrival records in April, five months before the hurricanes. In addition to April, visitor arrival records were also set every month June through December in 2017, and February and May both had the second highest numbers on record.
The increase in tourism has made it a banner tourism season so far for Grand Cayman’s hotels and advance bookings are looking strong through Easter. The luxury hotel segment of the market is helping to drive the growth. At The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, the busy holiday season was followed up with a strong January, said General Manager Marc Langevin.
“We were able to maintain a high level of occupancy in the first week of January after the festive period and transitioned directly into Cayman Cookout week,” he said. “We had also secured groups for the second part of the month and are forecasting a growth of 15 points of occupancy year-over-year for January. The same trend is true for the entire first quarter, where we are trending ahead in occupancy and growth rate.”
Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa General Manager Steven Andre said his hotel is also seeing a big difference between this year and last year in terms of occupancy, but since the hotel had only opened in November 2016, its marketing was still in its infancy during the first part of 2017.
Since then, however, Kimpton Seafire has been recognised internationally in several ways, including as Development of the Year by The Caribbean Hotel & Resort Investment Summit. The Seafire’s flagship restaurant, Avecita, was also named one of the best new restaurants in the world in 2017 by CNN Travel. Just last month, Kimpton Seafire became one of the eight newest recipients in the world to earn the AAA Five Diamonds rating.
“Getting those accolades along the way certainly brought the property to life,” Andre said. The addition of Kimpton Seafire’s 266 rooms to Grand Cayman’s overall rooms stock undoubtedly played a role in the Cayman Islands setting a record for visitor air arrivals in 2017. The 418,403 visitor air arrivals last year represented an 8.5 per cent increase over the previous record, set in 2016, and was the first time the Cayman Islands ever had more than 400,000 stay-over visitors in one year.
Looking ahead, Andre said the rest of 2018’s peak tourism season is looking strong.
“We are really happy,” he said. “The first quarter looks incredibly solid.” It’s not just the big hotel properties that are seeing the increase. Luxury resort condominium properties also have higher occupancy rates.
“It’s been non-stop,” said Arlene Sperandeo, the rental program coordinator at The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. “The numbers have been very, very strong.” The Residences mainly targets high-income guests for month-long stays, although it also takes nightly stays as overflow from the hotel when it is fully committed. Sperandeo said the current occupancy rates are just continuing a trend that began last year.
“We set occupancy records in July and November and in December we were fully occupied again,” she said. Beyond the high season, bookings are surprisingly good as well, she said. “The off-peak months between May and November have really picked up for us,” she said. “June is historically a very slow month, but this year, we already have quite a few bookings for June.”
Caribbean Club Operations Manager Danielle Wolfe said there has also been an increase in occupancy at that property so far this winter season, but not as much of it can be attributed to the Eastern Caribbean hurricanes.
“Not being a branded hotel, we haven’t seen the shift because of the hurricanes as quickly as the branded hotels,” she said. “The booking span for us is still sometimes quite short.”
The big hotels have seen group bookings increase since last year’s hurricanes in the Eastern Caribbean and that trend looks like it will continue. One reason for the bounce back of group bookings has to do with mosquitoes, not hurricanes, said Langevin.
“Last year we suffered from soft bookings and cancellations due to the Zika virus threat, but the situation has changed and … our groups are more confident to book,” he said, referring to the fact that the travel health advisory issued for the Cayman Islands by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with regard to Zika was removed in July 2017.
However, the influx of individual visitors who have chosen to vacation in the Cayman Islands instead of an Eastern Caribbean destination might prove to be temporary.
“Group bookings are made two to three years in advance and we have already been able to secure a strong base for 2019 and are currently working on booking 2020 and further,” Langevin said. “The risk of a decline in visitors to the Cayman Islands] will be more related to the individual travellers for whom the booking window is shorter and who will be the target of attractive and aggressive offers from re-opening hotels and resorts. They will be subject to intensive marketing and promotional campaigns from hotels and destinations that are announcing their re-opening at the end of the year.”
Still, the hurricane damage in the Eastern Caribbean has given the Cayman Islands the opportunity to showcase its tourism product to a new market of visitors who are coming to Grand Cayman for the first time. They are liking what they find, said Wolfe.
“People who come to the island for the first time give me very positive feedback,” she said. “They are surprised at how sophisticated Cayman is.” Langevin sees the same thing at The
“It does not take long for our first-time customers to recognise the quality of our destination,” he said. “The infrastructure, the beach, the diving sites, the quality of the food in the restaurants — on and off property — and the refined accommodation of our hotel. I also received extremely positive comments about the level of service and the genuine care guests experience during their stay, and many promised to be back with more friends.”
Kimpton Seafire’s brand awareness and marketing channels have also exposed the Cayman Islands to a new market segment, which has also led to increased first-time visitors and subsequent repeat visits, said Andre.
“We have already had people stay with us three, four or five times,” he said. “They found something they like and they want to come back.” Andre believes the future is very bright for Cayman Islands tourism.
“I think it’s Cayman’s time,” he said. “The timing to open Kimpton Seafire has been impeccable.”
He said that having a “shiny and new” luxury hotel on Grand Cayman is helping to introduce many new visitors to the island.
“I think we have brought some new excitement and hype to the island and I think it’s getting noticed.”