The Canadian tourism market has grown by nearly 100 per cent in the last five years and St. Lucia expects to receive a record number of visitors from this country in 2014, the island’s tourism director, Louis Lewis, said in Toronto last week.
St. Lucia welcomed almost 35,000 visitors last year from Canada, the Caribbean island’s third largest source market.
“The numbers for the first two months of this year exceed those for the same period last year and we expect the growth trend to continue,” he said. “In January alone there was a 15 per cent increase in stay-over arrivals with 776 more visitors.”
While the majority of the Canadian tourists are from the Greater Toronto Area, Lewis said there is potential to attract visitors from other parts of the province and the country.
“Given that the demand for St. Lucia is increasing, we have developed a strategy to work closely with the airlines to increase flight capacity to our destination,” Lewis said. “At the same time, we are broadening our presence in Canada by doing more promotions in areas outside of Toronto.”
Air Canada operates three flights weekly between Toronto and St. Lucia and one between Montreal and St. Lucia while WestJet flies twice a week between the two destinations in the summer and three times in the winter.
St. Lucia, which has a hotel room capacity of almost 5,000, welcomed approximately 320,000 tourists last year.
Lewis expects the island will reach the one million visitor mark late this year or early in 2015.
Despite the global financial crisis, the tourism industry — which accounts for almost 64 per cent of the island’s Gross Domestic Product – has flourished in the last five years.
“We have a clear strategy as to how we promote our destination,” he said. “We work closely with our airline partners to ensure there is access to the destination and we play to our strengths.
“Visitors don’t go somewhere for a vacation if they can have that experience where they reside. So we have infused our culture and heritage in our promotions because these are the things that make us attractive.
“We also have a range of options for everyone from the budget- to the high-end traveller.”
Lewis said St. Lucia remains a relatively safe destination despite the murder of a British yachtsman, a few robberies perpetrated against tourists and an unfortunate incident at a resort in the last two years.
In July 2012, British resident Hannah Defoe – the cousin of Toronto FC striker Jermain Defoe – was electrocuted in a hotel swimming pool and, four months later, an elderly Canadian visitor succumbed to his injuries after being beaten and robbed on a beach near Castries.
A year ago, masked men with shotguns and pistols robbed a group of cruise ship passengers while they were on an escorted excursion at the Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens near Soufriere and yachtsman Roger Pratt, a retired consultant, was murdered on his boat last January.
Four men have been charged with his death.
“I don’t want to downplay those tragic incidents,” said Lewis. “Any incidence of crime or an unfortunate occurrence is one too many. We have spent a lot of time and energy to ensure that safety and security are paramount because we know nobody travels to a place where they feel their safety is in jeopardy. Our priority is to have a safe destination for visitors.”
Despite the family tragedy, Defoe continues to embrace the island which is his mother’s birthplace. He vacations there annually and last year established a foundation in St. Lucia to help vulnerable young people.
“Jermain has done a lot to promote St. Lucia, especially in the United Kingdom and now he has a foundation that will benefit our youths,” Lewis said. “Our plan though is to have our nationals in the Diaspora become our number one promoters. We want them to be our ambassadors and agents. We are a small country operating in a small market, so we need as much assistance as possible.”
Lewis came to Toronto just days after the United Kingdom announced it will reduce the controversial Air Passenger Duty (APD) starting next year.
The departure tax charged on geographical tiers has had a severe impact on St. Lucia and other Caribbean nations with service-based economies that are largely tourism-centred. Travel for British tourists to the region has been very costly since the tax inception.
“The ultimate aim was to have it repealed entirely because it’s really an impediment to the benefits of tourism,” Lewis said. “For a travel party of four coming from the UK, they would have to set aside as much as 600 pounds from their travel budget for that tax. That hurt their spending power when they come to St. Lucia. Next year, the competition will be more equitable, but the ultimate aim is to have the tax removed so that we can grow in an unimpeded way because tourism is vital and important for us.”
The APD was introduced in 1994 by then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown as a ‘green tax’, but there was never any coherent accounting of how the revenue generated has been used by the treasury to offset the effects of carbon monoxide.
Lewis and his deputy, Tracey Warner-Arnold, were in the city for the Piton Awards that rewards top booking travel agents and agencies with cash and hotel incentives.
“We recognize that the travel agents are very important in the context of making decisions about where people travel to and if we develop specialists on the destinations, there is an incentive for them to sell it,” he said. “At the same time, they are imparting the best knowledge to attract visitors to our island.”