SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The number of people traveling to the Caribbean is bouncing back to pre-recession levels, with visitors from Canada and the U.S. giving a boost to a region struggling to recover from a global economic crisis, a top tourism official said Wednesday.
About 25 million tourists visited the Caribbean last year, a more than 5 percent increase from 2011. It's a growth rate that outpaced the rest of the world, which saw arrivals increase by 4 percent, said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, chairwoman of the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization.
"All the signs suggest Caribbean tourism is rallying," said Nicholson-Doty. "The region as a whole has regained ground lost in the heat of the global economic depression."
The Caribbean also saw its largest number of stayover visitors in five years, with the region's overall hotel occupancy increasing by more than 7 percent and total room revenues up by nearly 9 percent.
And tourists spent big while visiting the Caribbean last year, dropping more than $27 billion, a more than 3 percent increase from 2011. The numbers mark a return to pre-recession levels, Nicholson-Doty said.
The U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands fared the best, reporting a nearly 7 percent jump in tourists. From January to August last year alone, more than 1.1 million people visited Puerto Rico, mostly from the U.S. mainland.
Recent visitors include James Trucksess, a 46-year-old extermination business owner from North Brunswick, New Jersey. He flew again to Puerto Rico this week to escape the crippling snowstorm that recently hit the northeast U.S. coast.
"It's nice, it's warm and there's a lot of history," he said as he strolled near a historic fort with a cigar in one hand and a cup of coffee in another. "I come here pretty much for the history and the food as well."
Coming in second for visitor arrivals was the Dutch Caribbean, reporting a 5.6 percent increase from 2011 thanks to a surge in business from South America. The most popular islands were Curacao and Aruba, just north of Venezuela.
The bulk of tourists visiting the Caribbean come from the U.S., a number that increased by more than 4 percent last year, on par with pre-recession levels five years ago. Canada also remained one of the Caribbean's largest markets, with tourists from that country increasing by nearly 6 percent in 2012.
Meanwhile, the number of visitors from the United Kingdom dropped by 10 percent to 1 million last year, with tourism officials blaming weak European economies and high airfares coupled with a controversial air passenger duty.
Cruise ship tourism was flat across the Caribbean for the last three years. Some islands suffered more than others, with Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominica and the British Virgin Islands seeing a double-digit percentage drop in cruise ship passenger arrivals last year.
A slight increase is cruise ship tourism is expected next year after Disney Cruise Lines begins departing from the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, generating an estimated $5 million in revenue from the four departures scheduled in 2014. Those cruise ships will stop for the first time at the eastern Caribbean island of Grenada, which saw a nearly 22 percent drop in cruise ship passengers in 2012.
Caribbean governments are counting on cruise ship passengers like 40-year-old Jenna Balagus of Winnipeg, Canada, who arrived for the first time in Puerto Rico on Wednesday but hopes to return for an extended stay.
"Puerto Rico has a unique culture," she said as she watched her husband play with their three sons in a shaded public plaza. "I'd like to see more of it."