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Many holidays to the Caribbean are all about palm trees and gleaming white sands – and with options ranging from mega-resorts to B&Bs, villas and luxury hotels, there’s certainly no shortage of places to stay. But while some regional stakeholders play the numbers game with mass-market strategies, others have taken a more niche approach to their tourism developments. And with continually evolving consumer tastes, demands and trends, the region is endlessly adapting to stay ahead of the curve.

One such current trend is a widening diversification of product. In particular, says Carol Hay, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s UK and Europe marketing director, “We are seeing a growth in properties that cater to families and groups. We have also seen an increase in smaller, more luxurious properties  and a swing towards authentic experiences such as forest hikes, birdwatching, diving, sailing and transformational wellness.”

Although this points towards a growth in demand for niche developments, that’s not to say that large-scale resorts are falling out of fashion. One of the biggest players in this sector is Sandals, which operates 19 properties across seven Caribbean nations. New for this year was Sandals Royal Barbados, which opened adjacent to an existing Sandals property to offer a combined inventory of more than 500 rooms.

The company has long led the way in all-inclusive holidays and, according to UK managing director Karl Thompson, “We are constantly innovating and developing our offering.” This strategy has seen Sandals launch the Caribbean’s first Maldivian-style over-water suites, as well as introducing “game-changing” extras such as rooftop pools and bowling alleys.

“The hotels we are building average between 250 and 300 rooms, some of which are split into lower-density ‘villages’ for a more boutique feel,” says Thompson. “Future projects include our third resort in Barbados and a possible development in Tobago. We are also currently building a resort in St Lucia with plenty of signature Sandals innovations.”

This will be St Lucia’s fourth Sandals resort, but St Lucia Tourism’s UK director, Patricia Charlery-Leon, insists such big developments are part of a wider mix. “We are fortunate that we can embrace both niche and mass markets as our visitors seek different experiences,” she says. “The US and UK markets often favour all-inclusive, while our German visitors prefer off-the-beaten-track experiences and our French guests often twin-centre with Martinique. In addition to larger developments like Sandals, we are developing ‘village tourism’ to showcase local heritage and culture in eight distinctly different communities.”

Sizes to suit everyone

Sandals is an even bigger force in Jamaica, where the company’s nine properties have numerous all-inclusive competitors. But even here these massive resorts are only part of the picture. Across the island, accommodation options span larger, globally branded resorts to family- owned B&Bs. Next year will see the arrival of diverse new developments ranging from Excellence Oyster Bay  (a high-end, adults-only all-inclusive on a private peninsula in Montego Bay with more than 300 suites) to 28-room Skylark, a boutique hotel on Seven Mile Beach. The destination is also focusing on sustainability by working with hotel partners to prioritise green initiatives such as farm-to-table consumption.

Palladium Hotel Group, another big player in the all-inclusive market, is also growing its presence in the Caribbean. Its most recent openings include two in the Dominican Republic: a 115-suite TRS hotel in Cap Cana and a larger, 372-suite sister property in nearby Punta Cana. But while the destination is synonymous with all-inclusives to some holidaymakers, others know there’s much more here besides.

The tourist board’s UK director Sabrina Cambiaso says: “We have long been multi-market, but until BA began flying here in 2009, our only UK links were via charter flights, giving us  a mass-market perception.

“The US, German, French and Spanish markets had long been travelling here to stay at colonial-style boutique hotels in Santo Domingo and elsewhere. The larger resorts – both mass-market and more exclusive properties such as Aman and Eden Roc – came later, considerably diversifying our offering.”

Katy Berzins, Tui UK Caribbean product manager, names the Dominican Republic as one of her “standout” 2019 destinations because of its entry-level price point. She also says St Lucia and Aruba are strong sellers. “Hotel chains offering value for money, such  as Bahia, Riu and Royalton, are performing extremely well. We have also recognised that there’s an ongoing shift in durations, with more demand for seven, 10 or 11-night holidays instead of the traditional two weeks,” she says.

For some Caribbean nations, large-scale developments are a rarity. Dominica, for example, has been primarily a niche destination promoting hiking and diving in tandem with its “nature island” image. But according to Discover Dominica’s director of tourism Colin Piper, “With the advent of bigger and more luxurious properties from 2019 and beyond, we can introduce a wider range of travellers to our natural, cultural and adventurous heritage.”

Highlights here for 2019 include the reopening of properties damaged last year by Hurricane Maria, such as Secret Bay (whose six sustainable villas once saw it crowned the world’s best boutique hotel). Also of note is the all-new Wanderlust Caribbean Boutique Hotel, which has just five rooms overlooking one of the island’s best sea views.

It just goes to show that when it comes to providing memorable experiences, size isn’t everything in the Caribbean.

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