SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – As the Caribbean Tourism Organization celebrated Tuesday a 2015 report showing a glowing surge in tourism, the mosquito-borne Zika virus looms large on the horizon.
The report shows 2015 surpassed the global growth rate as it set new arrival and spending records, though there are grave concerns that the virus could put a dent in those numbers in 2016.
Nearly 29 million people visited the region last year, a 7 percent jump that surpassed the 4 percent global tourism growth rate, said Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Visitors to the Caribbean spent $30 billion last year, a $1 billion increase from 2014, he said.
"It's important for us to celebrate our victories in the Caribbean. We have our challenges," Riley said in a phone interview.
He credited a stronger U.S. economy, new flights, lower oil prices and persistent marketing.
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U.S. travelers accounted for 14.3 million visits, representing roughly 50 percent of all arrivals. Barbados, Curacao and Trinidad and Tobago reported the highest growth rates in U.S. arrivals. Meanwhile, there were more than 5 million arrivals from Europe for the first time in seven years, more than 1 million from Britain alone.
Hotel occupancies and average daily rates also increased last year for most hotels, although one-third of hotels reported a net loss as they struggled with high operating and air travel costs, said Frank Comito, CEO of the Florida-based Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association.
"While most destinations have done well and most hotels did well, that's not been the case across the board," he said. "There have been some areas of slow growth and even no growth."
The news comes as the Caribbean and Latin America struggle with an increase in Zika cases, with Puerto Rico already reporting several wedding and business conference cancellations. The U.S. territory has more than 30 confirmed Zika cases. The virus has hit Martinique and French Guiana the hardest, with more than 2,500 potential cases and more than 100 confirmed ones.
Comito said there have been some cancellations of trips to the Caribbean but declined to provide a specific number.
But officials said they expect tourist arrivals to increase roughly 5 percent this year.