Vacationing millennials are changing the face of Caribbean tourism
Millennials, those born in the early to mid-80s, are coming of age – and they vacation very differently from their Gen X parents. With different needs, priorities and spending power, these travellers are making their mark on Caribbean tourism as the industry evolves to better cater to them.
According to the United Nations, 200 million millennial tourists generate more than US$180bn in tourism revenue each year and this lucrative sector has grown almost 30 per cent since 2007. By 2023, millennials will comprise 50% of the travelling public. Competing for the millennial dollar is forcing the Caribbean to reimagine its tourism product – moving away from the formulaic sun, sand and sea brand into something more innovative, unique and authentic.
RE-THINKING THE BUSINESS MODEL
The millennial traveller is more likely to be found hiking a nature trail than relaxing by the pool. According to a 2014 Harris Poll, 78% would rather spend their money on experiences than things – making them a challenge for the Caribbean, where the tourism industry has long-relied on beaches and sunshine.
“Millennials are much more adventurous. They want to explore and experience things beyond the sun, sand and sea,” says Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA). “They are forcing us to re-think our business model.”
Saint Lucia’s Tourism Minister Dominic Fedee agrees, saying: “Millennials want to do exciting things, they want something ‘instagram-worthy’. Millennials play a leading role in tourism and will continue to play that leading role. They are the future of tourism and you need to be able to plan for that business.”
Over the last decade, the Caribbean has been steadily diversifying its tourism product to offer a wide range of exciting experiences to younger visitors. From eco-tours to shark-diving, and historic walking trails to carnival, Caribbean destinations are becoming adept at capitalising on their natural and cultural assets to lure in millennials.
“Change is good,” says Comito, and the changing face of tourism is proving especially good for the region’s SMEs who are finding millennial-friendly niches to exploit. Comito says: “Millennials’ curiosity is feeding into new businesses. It is supply and demand. We are already seeing different types of businesses emerging, homespun businesses that are giving millennials what they want. We may see some shifting to fuel even greater development of our historic sites and our urban areas.”
Whether it is creating new tourism apps, running an Airbnb or creating a foodie walking tour, more and more innovative entrepreneurs are finding a way into the market thanks to millennial demand. “Millennial tourism creates greater opportunity for different types of business and employment,” says Comito. “We talk a lot about linkages and leakages in our tourism economy – millennials can provide these linkages.”
HISTORY AND HERITAGE
As the industry evolves to develop a more unique product, heritage tourism has grown in importance. This niche sector will not only help put destinations on the map for millennials but also give individual islands a chance to differentiate from the pack and be seen in their own right, rather than as just another part of the Caribbean.
In Saint Lucia, the Saint Lucia Tourism Authority (SLTA) has revived the concept of ‘village tourism’. This initiative, which is expected to officially launch before the end of the year, will take a more community-centred approach to tourism, encouraging Saint Lucian ownership. Getting more Saint Lucians involved in the industry at a grass-roots level will give visiting millennials the chance to meet and learn from locals – something that they value highly. A report from industry research group Wyse Travel Confederation shows that 55% of millennial tourists want to interact with locals, 46% are looking to experience everyday life and 43% want to increase their knowledge of the destination.
Historic and cultural sites give the Caribbean a chance to show that it is more than its climate and to show off its very varied ancestry. “We have French, English, Dutch and Spanish influences in our music, culture and architecture,” says Comito. “The variety and diversity we have over one region is amazing.”
MARKETING TO MILLENIALS
Having the right product is one thing, letting the market know you’re there is another. Marketing to millennials means going online to target the digital generation where they live. Recently the SLTA took to social media, using the platform heavily to signal that the island was open for business following hurricanes Irma and Maria. It also announced that it would increase investment into digital marketing so that future campaigns could have better market penetration.
Businesses that will thrive in the digital tourism marketplace are those that not only know the millennial mindset but have the technical skills to reach them. The CHTA runs seminars and other events to try to bring its members up to speed. Comito says: “Millennial tourists require a whole different approach with social and digital media. Businesses that are savvy in that area are going to do well. We do educational events for the industry, to share the latest best practices. These enable our people to recognise the opportunities and be better equipped to deal with those opportunities.”
As the industry takes proactive steps to transform its thinking and offerings, Comito says he is optimistic about the sector’s future. While there are challenges ahead, he believes the Caribbean can meet the needs of the newest generation of travellers – provided it focuses on what it does best.
“It is a very competitive, global world out there and it is becoming even more so which challenges us as a region to look at new and different ways we can take advantage of the depth and breadth of the assets we have. The core [of our tourism product] is unmatched anywhere in the world.”