Guadeloupe tries to raise profile in lucrative U.S. market

Cliffs of Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe. (Larry Luxner)

Tourism authorities on French-speaking Guadeloupe want to make sure you don’t confuse their island with Mexico’s Isla Guadalupe, a volcanic Pacific biosphere reserve famous for its great white sharks.

That’s why the Guadeloupe Islands Tourist Board — which opened its New York office in November 2012 — insisted on putting the word “islands” in its title.

“In the 1970s, there used to be direct flights from New York to Pointe-á-Pitre, and we had the Meridien Hotel. But then the government changed its policy and began focusing on mainland France,” said Sandra Vénite, the office’s regional manager for the United States and South America. “Now they’re trying to turn things around because of the very bad economy in France, which is where 90% of our tourists come from.”

Hence Guadeloupe’s new focus on the United States.

In fact, last year marked the introduction of direct air service from the U.S. mainland to Guadeloupe, a French overseas department in the Lesser Antilles. The April 2013 launch of a weekly American Airlines nonstop flight from Miami to Pointe-á-Pitre and Seaborne Airlines’ decision to boost the frequency of its service between San Juan and Pointe-á-Pitre to four times a week helped bring 4,900 U.S. visitors to Guadeloupe last year, a 23% jump from the 4,000 who managed to find their way there in 2012.

The flight from San Juan to Pointe-á-Pitre is only one hour and 15 minutes, and Vénite said she’s seen a growing number of Puerto Ricans visiting her island for the French culture and shopping as well. And Guadeloupe is only 20 minutes away by air from St. Maarten, a major duty-free and cruise ship destination.

“We did a survey when we opened here,” Vénite explained in an interview from her 29th-floor office in midtown Manhattan. “It revealed that while people knew about Guadeloupe, they didn’t know where it was. They associated it with Mexico. This is why we came up with ‘Guadeloupe Islands,’ to distinguish it from Isla Guadalupe and its sharks. We’ve had to do a lot of branding, but we’ve been pretty successful so far.”

Busy commercial street in downtown Pointe-â-Pitre. (Larry Luxner)
Busy commercial street in downtown Pointe-â-Pitre. (Larry Luxner)

In November, Seaborne became interlined partners with JetBlue Airways, offering U.S. travelers more access. In addition, local carrier Air Antilles Express began biweekly service between Guadeloupe and Antigua, providing an additional option for arrival by connecting in Antigua, as well as opening the French-speaking archipelago to British visitors who can connect via flights originating in England.

Guadeloupe reported a 26 percent increase in hotel room-night bookings in 2013 over the year before, with mainland France continuing to be the island’s largest source of visitors. But Germany, Sweden, Belgium and the United States are among Guadeloupe’s fastest-growing source markets.

“Guadeloupe was the favorite Caribbean destination [for France] in 2012,” she said. “We’re also seeing a growth in British tourism as well, thanks to Death in Paradise — a half-British, half-French TV comedy series filmed on location in Guadeloupe.”

Guadeloupe, with its 407,000 inhabitants, is especially popular for its premium award-winning rums, diverse landscape and French and creole cuisine as well as perfumes and other luxury imports (nearby Martinique, also an overseas department of France, has a population of about 401,000).

“We have seen a tremendous increase in interest and arrivals from the U.S. since amplifying our strategic push in the market,” said Willy Rosier, director-general of the Guadeloupe Islands Tourist Board. “Our islands’ blend of French and Caribbean culture and our very modern infrastructure offer U.S. travelers of all ages a new and exciting source for travel adventures.”

Little girl and her umbrella at a Pointe-â-Pitre fruit and vegetable market. (Larry Luxner)
Little girl and her umbrella at a Pointe-â-Pitre fruit and vegetable market. (Larry Luxner)

Americans account for only 1 percent of the 417,000 tourists who flew last year to Guadeloupe, which is comprised of five islands: Basse-Terre, Grande-Terre, Les Saintes, Marie-Galante and La Desirade. That leaves plenty of room for growth.

The archipelago has 5,700 guestrooms, with many hotels scheduling renovations for 2014 through 2015, including La Creole Beach Hotel & Spa, Langley Resort Fort Royal, Auberge de la Vielle Tour, Hotel Fleur d’Epee and Hotel La Cocoteraie. In addition, the luxurious La Toubana Hotel & Spa will debut 14 new beachfront suites in 2014, bringing its total accommodation to 44 rooms and suites.

“We hope to triple U.S. arrivals within the next three years, so I’d like to see 10,000 Americans come, which should be possible if we get major tour operators on board,” said Vénite.

Cruise ship arrivals have also been increasing rapidly, from 139,396 passengers in the 2011-12 season to 252,229 passengers in 2012-13 and a projected 300,000 passengers in 2013-14. This season, Guadeloupe expects to receive more than 80 port calls, including two new ships from Costa Cruises and one new ship from MSC Cruise Lines.

A new cruise terminal, the Centre Saint John Perse, opened in November 2012 in Guadeloupe’s commercial capital, Pointe-á-Pitre, boosting passenger capacity by 2,000 compared to the previous terminal. The new facility, which cost €1.4 million, has a local crafts village, many new restaurants and improved pedestrian pathways.

Officials say 2014 will be an important year for tourism in Guadeloupe. The latest Route de Rhum — a legendary sailing race that takes place every four years — is scheduled to depart Saint-Malo, France, on Oct. 24 and arrive in Guadeloupe on Nov. 2, attracting sailing enthusiasts from around the world.

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