Tourism in Antigua and Barbuda is on an upward trajectory and 2016 is set to see this buoyant sector grow even more as the twin Caribbean islands look to broaden their appeal, while at the same time retaining the unique appeal as a holiday destination. Interviewed at the World Travel Market fair in London towards the end of 2015, CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, Colin James, spelled out his vision for the future of tourism in the area, and how he considered sensitive and “sustainable development” as being the way forward.

Lying between the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, the twin islands of Antigua and Barbuda are part of the Lesser Antilles, and are separated by only a few short nautical miles. Thanks to their many unspoilt beaches, stunning location, and an average temperature of 27ºC, the islands have always been a much loved holiday destination, catering for more discerning holidaymakers, rather than the mass market crowds. That is unlikely to change any time soon, although recent visitor numbers have increased significantly and Colin James, CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, is keen to emphasise that the twin islands have “a great mix of holiday packages” to offer visitors of all kinds.

Pristine Barbuda Beach. Photo: Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority

Pristine Barbuda Beach.
Photo: Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority

A beach for every day of the year

The CEO, who was born in the UK and spent many years working in the telecommunications industry before moving into the tourism sector, says Antigua and Barbuda have a great deal to offer: “This is one of the most beautiful parts of the world, with 365 beaches – that’s a beach for every day of the year. You can leave the UK at 5am and be on an unspoilt beach on one of the islands by 3pm local time the same day.”

The abundance of beaches and warm, clear seas is not all that the islands have to offer: Colin was quick to point out that the quality of local food, culture, wildlife, hospitality and service are all “second to none”. Tourism accounts for some 75% of GDP on the islands, so its importance cannot be underestimated and it’s an area that has seen a lot of investment in recent years. The new airport in Antigua is the largest in the eastern Caribbean and boasts world class facilities, including multiple VIP lounges and even pet toilets! A current development, backed by actors Robert De Niro and James Franco, will see the creation of an all-new, 100-room paradise resort in Barbuda.

The tourist board chief says that while increasing the offer to holidaymakers is important, development has to be sustainable and managed carefully. The focus is on getting the balance right between having the kind of luxury five-star resorts with all the facilities that visitors expect, and providing more family-style accommodation. A great mix of accommodation and holiday packages is key as well as retaining the smaller, intimate, boutique-type hotels where guests are made to feel part of the family and where returning guests are always remembered.

View of the English Harbour. Photo: Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority

View of the English Harbour.
Photo: Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority

Eco-tourism

In recent years, the islands have become a popular wedding and honeymoon destination, which is a market that is likely to expand, and there is also scope for developing the eco-tourism market further. Barbuda, which is home to the largest nesting colony of frigate birds (5,000 pairs) in the western hemisphere, is a, “paradise for eco-lovers”, says Colin James, offering an unrivalled, “escape from it all experience thanks to the island’s natural peace and tranquillity”. The smaller of the two islands, Barbuda, is surrounded by pristine seas and includes a 17 mile stretch of unbroken beaches. One of these is the so-named ‘Princess Diana Beach’, because of Lady Spencer’s fondness of holidaying here with her two sons, Princes William and Harry, when they were children.

At the heart of everything, Colin says, is the emphasis on local hospitality and providing world class servIce to visitors: “The people on Antigua and Barbuda are known for their hospitality, and this is something that can help to enhance the visitor experience. We want to give visitors to this part of the world an unforgettable experience and one that is truly second to none.”

Only in Antigua and Barbuda…

Asked to described one of the characteristics of the people in the twin islands, the tourist board chief pointed to the unique local way of giving street directions. Instead of saying turn left or right, locals were more likely to tell you to, “turn west ”, or “turn east. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that we grew up on an island,” says James.

Wedding at Galley Bay. Photo: Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority

Wedding at Galley Bay.
Photo: Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority

A taste of the Caribbean

Antigua and Barbuda has a range of culinary delights for visitors to the islands to enjoy, including some they can sample for the first time. As well as locally caught seafood such as red snapper, lobster, and shrimp, popular dishes are fungie and pepper pot, and dukano. Like a lot of Caribbean food and culture, the dishes are strongly influenced by their west African origins. Fungie (pronounced ‘foon-jee’) and pepper pot is the national dish. Fungie is made from cornmeal and is similar to polenta, while pepper pot is a stew of meat or fish with vegetables. Dukano is a type of steamed pudding made from sweet potato, sugar and flour. Susie’s Hot Sauce originated in Antigua and this hot pepper sauce is now a favourite of sauce lovers the world over.

Popular local drinks include ginger beer, maube, and fresh juices from a range of fruits such as tamarind, mango, hibiscus, passion fruit, and guava. Coconut milk is also a local favourite. Alcoholic drinks include award winning rums, and beers, and Ponche Kuba Cream Liqueur – a sweet, creamy drink that is very popular on the islands.

Cricket and sailing

Cricket is the most popular sport played locally on the islands and Antigua is home to the 20,000-seater Sir Vivian Richards stadium, named after the world famous cricketer who was born in Antigua. The islands are also a magnet for the sailing fraternity and Antigua Sailing Week in April-May each year is the one of the largest sailing regattas in the world, attracting yachts, sloops, and schooners from all parts of the globe, as well as traditional crafts from the islands.