“Not every destination has the type of people we have,” said Colin James, CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority.
“They are friendly, they are welcoming, they are open.”
The Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority were at Ensemble’s office in downtown Toronto on 15AUG to talk up Canadian visitation ahead of the busy fall travel season.
Canadian arrivals in Antigua and Barbuda reached 265,119 in 2022, nearly surpassing 2019 figures, officials said.
Speaking with Open Jaw in a one-on-one interview, James said Antigua and Barbuda Tourism and Ensemble have joined forces to promote the destination.
“Ensemble just signed two of our hotels (Hodges Bay Resort and Spa, and The Verandah Resort & Spa) and we’re working cooperatively with them,” James said.
“We’re excited to be able to promote those properties and work with a group that’s in keeping with our aspirational-type strategy.
“We really want guests who are looking for a well-appointed, authentic Caribbean experience, but also aspirational as well. We’re not Cuba. We’re not the DR. Ensemble really appeals to that part of the market.”
Ensemble earlier this year announced it has become the first consortium to partner with Women Leading Travel & Hospitality, a membership-based association that connects executive women across all sectors of the travel and hospitality industry.
James said the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority is working closely with travel advisors, who he likes to call “our travel ambassadors.”
“They are our lifeline,” he said. “One of the things the pandemic showed us is that relationships matter. If you went and booked online and didn’t go through a travel agency and everything was closed, who did you call? Ghostbusters? You had to have a live person to reach out to.
“The death of the travel agent is over-exaggerated,” James said. “They’ve gotten stronger, and people trust their instincts; trust their recommendations. And that’s why we cultivate those relationships. It’s all about selling what you know and building relationships.”
Two Destinations in One
Barbuda is a laid-back island that’s 43 km’s from Antigua, easily reached via a 15-minute flight, a short helicopter ride, or a 90-minute ferry.
James said it’s known for its 17-mile beach (also known as Princess Diana Beach, as she used to come here with Prince Harry and Prince William) and the largest colony of frigate birds in the western hemisphere. It’s also home to a Nobu restaurant from Robert DeNiro and chef Nobu Matsuhisa.
“It’s the only Nobu in the world where you can go for a dip in the ocean between courses,” James said with a smile.
Antigua offers white-sand beaches (they like to say there are 365 of them; one for every day of the year), fabulous resorts, and a lush rainforest.
Your Open Jaw correspondent was there a few years ago and loved strolling around the grounds and inspecting the colourful works of art at the Fig Tree Gallery. I also had a nice stay at Sugar Ridge Resort (across from Jolly Beach) and at the spectacular Hermitage Bay Resort.
James said yachting is also a big attraction on Antigua.
“We have the UNESCO world heritage site, English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard. It’s the only naval dockyard that since the 1700s is still in operation today. It’s the mecca of Caribbean sailing.”
A New Royalton CHIC will open in Antigua next April, and the refurbished Hawksbill Hotel will open in early November, he said.
Among the initiatives in Antigua and Barbuda is the nation’s first Art Week. Antigua-Canadian artist Kwame Delfish, the first person of colour to design a coin for the Canadian mint, was the celebrity artist.
They also have a new restaurant week that includes prix fixe menus at restaurants and encourages people to not only explore fine dining options but also to get out and “eat like a local.”
“We encourage people to sample roadside eateries,” James said. “They’re always the best. There’s good food, and you get conversations going. They tell you about the peppers, they tell you about their grandkids. It’s about the experience.
“We like Canadians because they don’t come down and look for pizza and burgers. They want to go where the locals go.”
Fashion design also has become big on Antigua, James said. There’s also a donkey sanctuary to protect working donkeys that were set loose many years ago on Antigua. Visitors can adopt a donkey, help care for them and even get a postcard. The babies are particularly popular.
James said there are daily flights to Antigua in winter from Toronto via Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing.
“It’s a four and-a-half hour flight. You get up at 6:30 and by 2:30 in the afternoon we can have you on the beach. We’re part of the Commonwealth, so you feel right at home when you come from Canada.
“As they say on the Price is Right, Come on Down.”
James said Antigua and Barbuda was the first country in the western hemisphere to ban single use plastic bags. They also banned Styrofoam to help protect the ocean.
He said Antigua and Barbuda recently adopted a program called Plan 2032, which focuses tourism on authenticity, sustainability and helping locals understand the role visitors play in a destination where 65% of the GDP comes from tourism.
“If they weren’t sure (how important tourism is) the lockdown taught us that,” he said. “Other people were running for their supper. We were running for our lives.”
An important aspect of Plan 2032, which was lauded by Ensemble Travel officials, is making sure that locals gain from tourism, and not just big hotel owners or airlines.
“We want to make sure everyone gets a fair share of the pie. It’s not ‘You get the crumbs and they get the whole plate.’”
Antigua and Barbuda got a huge PR boost recently when a mother and daughter from the island nation went into space on Virgin’s VSS Unity.
Keisha Schahaff and her daughter, Anastatia Mayers, were the first Caribbean duo in space and the first mother-daughter combo in space. They took several mementoes with them, including pink sand from the beach and an Antigua and Barbuda flag.
“The flag sold out on Amazon in 24 hours,” James said. “Richard Branson came down to present a model of the spaceship to our prime minister.”
It was a huge boost for the nation.
“We’re not like Jamaica,” said James. “People say ‘Antigua, where is that exactly?’ The astronauts are a way for us to tell our story.”
Tameka Wharton, Toronto-based Sales and Marketing Manager at Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, sang several tunes at the event, including “Fly Me to the Moon” in honour of the island nation’s newest celebrities.
“In other words, Antigua and Barbuda love you,” she sang in a terrific performance backed by a live band with a tuneful steel drum.
Antigua and Barbuda have what Canadians are looking for, James said.
“If you’re looking for a holiday destination that’s going to cause you to relax, unwind, be rejuvenated or restored, that you can get to from the GTA in 4.5 hours, where we can have you on the beach by 2:30 in the afternoon, and where you can have some of the most unforgettable experiences among some of the most beautiful people in the world, it has to be, ands down, Antigua and Barbuda. So, we’ll see you soon.”
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