[private] The week before Easter is the busiest of the year for Bay Islands tourism, and 2012 saw the customary crowds on beaches, roadways and in every type of lodging. Galaxy Wave ferried significantly more passengers to Roatan this year than in the previous four Semana Santas, when the global recession and Honduran political problems kept visitors away. But whether island business received the much-needed jolt many had hoped for depends on whom you talk to.
Semana Santa, the Christian Holy Week preceding Easter, brought the usual heavy crowds of tourists to the Bay Islands, but the jury is still out on whether 2012 marked a break-out from the relatively depressed conditions of the last four years.
Accommodations were full and beaches were crowded as always. But some island business owners reported visitors were reluctant to spend money, and whether they saw a significant uptick depended largely on what business they were in and where they were located.
Semana Santa mainly attracts visitors from the Honduran mainland, and to a lesser extent from neighboring Central American countries, who come to visit the beach. They typically do not patronize the high-end resorts, souvenir shops, dive shops or adventure tourism operators, which cater more to foreign tourists.
Celeste Pospisil, who runs West Bay Lodge, close to the beach action, reported “great business.” The lodge was 100 percent full, the day spa was “packed every day,” and wine sales were up sharply at the gift shop.
In contrast, Gary Chamer of Palmetto Bay Plantation, a more isolated location, said business there was “a bit more subdued.”
“Semana Santa doesn’t really affect us too much,” said Chamer. But he said his resort was full all the same, as it was last year. In fact, lodgings all over Roatan typically fill up every year during Semana Santa, making year-on-year comparisons difficult. “A full glass is a full glass,” as Chamer put it.
Roatan National Police Commander Manuel Calderon estimated 70,000 tourists visited Roatan during Semana Santa, including 21,000 cruise ship passengers, roughly the same numbers as last year. However, Jennifer McNab of the Galaxy Wave ferry, which transports the bulk of tourists to the island and added extra crossings during Holy Week, said passenger traffic was up 15-20 percent compared with last year, back on par with levels seen before the economic and political crises of 2008-2009. “There were quite a few more passengers than the last few years,” she said.
Roatan’s Juan Manuel Galvez Airport saw 3,688 inbound passengers April 1-8, including 1,518 foreign visitors. Figures were not available for previous years.
Utila saw heavy crowds on both airlines and ferries, with hotels booked out in advance. But sources on Guanaja report tourists largely stayed away from the island this Semana Santa, with noticeably fewer visitors than last year. Most blamed the weak economy, but some also cited a failure by authorities to promote tourism to Guanaja and the high cost of getting there from the mainland. (See this month’s Our Islands column, page 8).
Mike Carter of Roatan Life said vacation rental business on Roatan was flat compared with last year for the 10 days up to and including Easter. But he said that was largely because many homeowners chose to spend Semana Santa on the island rather than rent their units. Nearly all units were full.
Roatan Electric Company (RECO) reported electricity demand at mid-week was peaking at unprecedented levels – nearly 14 megawatts – indicating a heavy level of activity on the island.
Of course, having lots of people on the island does not necessarily mean they are spending lots of money. Even in West Bay, a magnet for Semana Santa tourism, some business owners observed that, while the hotels were full, people were “holding back” on spending, perhaps due to continued economic weakness on the mainland. A waiter at a high-end West Bay restaurant even reported that a group of beach-goers brought a cooler into the establishment and tried to picnic at one of its tables.
“People are looking for bargains,” said Roatan Mayor Julio Galindo, who owns Anthony’s Key Resort, which he said had “a big flux of people” for the week. “That’s international. The cruise ships hear the same thing.”
The experience of Captain Van’s, a West Bay rental shop, was perhaps indicative. Owner Murray Russ said phone and phone card sales and movie rentals were strong. But scooter and other vehicle rentals were no better than the week before Semana Santa. Many mainland tourists could not supply a credit card for the deposit on a vehicle.
When all is said and done, Semana Santa is all about the beach. A vendor at The View, near the turnoff for the Parrot Tree resort, was preparing to close before noon Good Friday for lack of customers. “They’re all at the beach,” she said.
Pospisil of West Bay Lodge noted things were “much better organized” this year because of increased police presence and better parking arrangements.
Public security forces beefed up their presence for the holiday week by bringing in 49 extra personnel from the mainland. Red Cross volunteers operated first-aid stations on West Bay and West End beaches, as well as at Watering Place beach near the Port of Roatan in Coxen Hole.
Roatan Police officials said there were no drownings, traffic accidents or other major incidents resulting from the influx of tourists. The only fatality they reported was the result of a domestic disturbance April 4, which Police Chief Joe Solomon characterized as a “crime of passion,” unrelated to the holidays but, regrettably, not uncommon on the island. (Police records showed a second homicide April 6 somewhere in the Bay Islands.) There were, however, some robberies reported on Utila (see this month’s Utila Perspective, page 7). [/private]