The Caribbean is a perennially popular vacation zone for Americans, but -- shockingly -- not everyone booking an island getaway wants to lounge in the Bahamian sun. Travel agents say a growing number of Caribbean vacationers are looking for lower-profile destinations and adventure travel. Regional and international developers are catering to these novelty seekers with new and renovated resorts. Courtney Scott, Travelocity's travel expert, talked with The Motley Fool about lesser-known Caribbean destinations to watch.
Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
Aruba is the best-known Netherlands Antilles destination, but "Curacao and Bonaire are both fantastic and seeing something of a boom," Scott said. "Back in 2010, the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort [owned by Texas-based Benchmark Resorts & Hotels] opened. It's really set the stage for other properties to open up on Curacao. And we're seeing a lot of developers coming over from the Netherlands, setting up shop in Curacao, and infusing their European level of sophistication and luxury into their Caribbean properties."
Marriott International (NASDAQ:MAR) and Hilton Worldwide (NYSE:HLT) both have beachfront properties in the capital city of Willemstad, and Hilton completed a guest-room makeover in January. Curacao's hotel occupancy rates were up almost 4% in May compared to the same time last year, with revenue up 10%. Scott says there's room for more development.
"The entire west side of Curacao is really unspoiled and rugged. A lot of the [development] concentration has been in Willemstad, but once people go more to the west, they'll discover little treasures of the island." Visitors can also go east to nearby Bonaire, renowned for "incredible diving" along the protected coral reefs that ring the island.
The Island of Spice had a challenging decade after hurricanes hammered the country's nutmeg industry in 2004 and 2005. With that major export crop off the table, Grenada tapped its natural resources to boost tourism.
"It's a mountainous island, awash in green, with fertile volcanic soils and waterfalls," Scott said. Sandals, the privately owned Jamaica-based resort chain, reopened its renovated and expanded LaSource resort in the capital city, St. George's, last year. "Sandals is trying to attract that luxury European and American traveler to Grenada."
Speaking last week at the country's first sustainable tourism symposium, tourism minister Alexandra Otway-Noel said that despite Grenada's financial struggles, tourism is looking up -- especially the cruise sector. So far this year, there's been a 12% increase in cruise ship arrivals, with marked rises in the number of Canadian, European, and American visitors.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Scott concedes that one of her spots to watch isn't on a lesser-known island, but the city of Ocho Rios is stepping out of Montego Bay's shadow. Her prime example is the planned 2015 opening of the upscale all-inclusive Moon Palace Jamaica Grande in Ocho Rios. Palace Resorts, a private company based in Cancun and Miami, bought the 730-room property last month and will start renovations in September.
Location and size will be selling points, Scott said. "It's only about 90 minutes from the Montego Bay airport and it is pristine beachfront property -- 17 acres." The site also has Ocho Rios' longest private beach, but Palace isn't just looking to host vacationers. The resort will court business and convention travel with Jamaica's biggest meeting space.
Ocho Rios will also be home to a new beachfront waterpark by year's end. Aimbridge Hospitality-owned Jewel Runaway Bay Beach & Golf Resort announced in June that its new 9,000 square-foot park will open in December.
In 2012, Ocho Rios saw only 19% of the U.S. visitors who went to Jamaica, compared to Montego Bay, which was the destination for 34% of American vacationers. Montego Bay's popularity isn't flagging -- Hyatt (NYSE:H) is getting into the all-inclusive game there when its Rose Hall resort opens later this year under the Hyatt Ziva brand. But those destination numbers could shift as more Ocho Rios resorts open.
More properties could also lead to price competitions and better deals for travelers to the Caribbean, many of whom are sensitive to price. "All-inclusive properties offer a lot to families that travel together, and that is why the Caribbean continues to be a popular destination," Scott said. Developers and the region's tourism industry hope that "new" destinations and developments will make the Caribbean even more appealing.