BRIDGETOWN - As the Caribbean tourism sector prepares to welcome the New Year, we look forward to 2019 with a sense of optimism, excitement and much hope. We are optimistic because we are seeing signs that the lows which Mother Nature imposed upon us during the latter part of 2017 into 2018 are being reversed. We are excited about our prospects because of the incredible turnaround that we are seeing in the most impacted destinations. And we hopeful that the progress of our member countries and supporters can continue unabated, to maintain the momentum they developed since the storms of 2017 when everyone rolled up their sleeves and got down to work to build an improved and more sustainable product.
We are pleased to report that tourism accommodations are being rebuilt and reopened, airports are receiving their full schedule of flights with the return of airlines in full force and the diverse product offerings within our destinations are being restored.
At the same time, increases in the number of available seats, positive messaging and promotions in the marketplace have enabled the unaffected destinations to register continuous growth. The demand among international visitors is strong and Caribbean nationals have continued their quest to explore and enjoy the pleasures of their neighbouring destinations.
Regarding the cruise sector, most ports have been repaired and cruise calls have already returned to normal levels. Indeed, regional cruise visits grew in each month since May, with the region registering growth of 13.7 per cent during the May to September period and 17.1 per cent in the third quarter of 2018.
In October, the region launched a digital awareness campaign "The Rhythm Never Stops" on social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, coinciding with augmented airlift for the 2018/19 tourist winter season. Travel professionals and their clients received the message that the Caribbean is a resilient region with an unstoppable resolve to succeed and to keep on moving in the right direction.
For 2019, the outlook is bright for our destinations. We're quite excited about declaring 2019 as the "Year of Festivals" in the Caribbean. Simply stated, there's a rhythm to the region that cannot be replicated anywhere on earth. There's no escaping the melody of nature, as gentle breezes and free-flowing fronds combine beautifully in perfect harmony; no getting away from the heavenly choruses of tides caressing magnificent world class beaches; no missing the cadence of our conversation, the tempo of our movement.
The Caribbean is a festival of rhythms and a home of festivals – music, art, literary, sailing, lights, food, rum, religious, dance – all with their own attractive rhythms.
The Year of Festivals will focus on the fascinating events that have become an integral part of the Caribbean tourism calendar. Festivals help to energize communities across the region, while giving visitors more reasons to enjoy our destinations.
Despite all there is to celebrate in 2019, we must also approach the New Year with a degree of caution since there's still much work to be done. While preliminary data from our member countries revealed increased demand for travel to the vast majority of the 24 reporting countries, and despite a 9.1 per cent increase in arrivals in September 2018 when compared to the same month in 2017, overall our performance was still down in 2018. A third quarter decline of 3.2 per cent made this our best quarter, and the rate of tourist arrivals is now expected to slow to -1.0 per cent to -2.0 per cent - a definite sign that the tide is turning. Cruise passenger arrivals are projected to grow at an accelerated rate of around 6 per cent to 7 per cent.
Without doubt, our region is in a stronger position than it was a year ago. We are encouraged by the prospect of even greater collaboration with our partners in the industry, including the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, and a range of travel professionals and industry partners who consistently offer Caribbean holiday experiences to their best clients. Our confidence is buoyed by the progress our region is making to combine its resources to bolster our competitive position internationally. The evidence is clear that a strong, unified Caribbean gives the region a global advantage which individual member-countries on their own have little chance of attaining. The success of our countries rests upon our ability to speak as a region with one strong voice.
On behalf of the CTO Council of ministers and commissioners of tourism, the board of directors, members and staff of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, I thank you for all your commitment, hard work and support in 2018, and wish you a New Year of rich blessings and prosperity.