SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Expensive jet fuel and a soft American economy are threatening to sink Caribbean tourism as airline ticket prices soar and flights are sharply reduced, choking the flow of the vacationers that many tiny islands depend upon.
Tourism is the economic cornerstone of the Caribbean, which drew more than 15 million visitors last year to colonial cities and carefree beaches.
“Billions of dollars of investment are being exposed and thousands of jobs are being exposed,” said Allen Chastanet, chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
Airlines are cutting back across the world as passengers balk at paying fares that have risen along with fuel costs. The Caribbean is particularly vulnerable because one foundering airline, American, controls much of the market — carrying more than 60 percent of passengers traveling through Puerto Rico last year.
American now expects to cut daily flights out of Puerto Rico’s capital from 93 to 51 in September. Some flights will be cut to Antigua, St. Maarten, Aruba, Santo Domingo and Samana in the Dominican Republic, spokeswoman Minnette Velez said.
Fewer flights to Puerto Rico could also jeopardize the island’s cruise ship industry, since it would be harder for passengers to reach the island to board. Ten cruise ships used Puerto Rico as their homeport last year.
Rather than raise ticket prices so high that they’re beyond the reach of most customers, American has decided to cut flights and reduce capacity, Velez said. “Traveling would be completely inaccessible if we increase fares as oil prices rise,” she said.
Other carriers are making similar moves. Spirit Airlines recently said it would close its San Juan hub, and Continental Airlines expects to soon announce destination and flight cuts.
The Caribbean is still affordable for wealthy travelers, but resorts “that appeal particularly to price-sensitive families are in a world of trouble,” said Christopher Hart, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.
The flight cuts are coming despite increases in tourism this year to most of the islands, including double-digit growth in U.S. visitors to Antigua, St. Lucia and Jamaica, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. The Dominican Republic reported 407,000 U.S. tourists from January to April, a 6 percent increase from last year, and Puerto Rico reported increased airline passenger traffic as well.
Many fear even more cuts, meaning the island won’t even have a chance to lure more tourists.(p2)