South Floridians planning a stay in the Bahamas or the Caribbean this summer will find getting there pretty easy: More than three dozen destinations can be reached nonstop from Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
In addition, dozens of small airlines and charters providing inter-island service, so it’s rare that getting even to some of the smaller islands will involve more than one change of plane. Alternatively, many boat ferries run between the islands.
Islands in the Bahamas, of course, are just short hops from Miami or Fort Lauderdale. Between the two airports, one can fly to 14 Bahamian destinations nonstop. In the Caribbean, which technically does not include the Bahamas, 25 destinations can be reached nonstop from the two South Florida airports.
Air service to the Caribbean has been evolving over the years as tourist patterns change. Many more flights, for example, now serve the Dominican Republic, whose numbers of stay-over tourists increased from 1.4 million in 1991 to 4.3 million in 2011, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Cuba also recorded a huge increase in tourists, most from Canada and Europe. American tourism to that island is very limited by law.
Most islands have seen hefty increases in stay-over visitors in the past two decades. Jamaica has posted an increase of more than a million visitors, from 844,600 in 1991 to 1.96 million in 2011. The U.S. Virgin Islands went from 376,400 in 1991 to 678,962; Aruba from 501,300 to 871,316.
On the other hand, several islands showed decreases over that 20-year period. Puerto Rico declined from 2.56 million in 1991 to 1.44 million in 2011, and the Bahamas saw its numbers drop from 1.43 million visitors to 1.34 million.
Overall, stay-over visitation to the Caribbean and Bahamas is higher than it was in 1991, but about five percent less than it was in 2001.
Changes in air service are continuing. American Airlines, whose American Eagle is the dominant carrier in the Caribbean, used to service many islands from a hub in San Juan, but has been cutting back service from that city and will drop four more destinations in August (Barbados, Grenada, La Romana and St. Lucia). Today, while American still flies to 15 islands from San Juan, it has more Caribbean nonstops from Miami.
JetBlue, which leaped into the Caribbean when American cut back its service, now is the biggest carrier operating out of San Juan, mainly for flights to mainland U.S. cities. It does, however fly from San Juan to four other Caribbean destinations.
A host of smaller airlines and charter lines run inter-island flights in both the Bahamas and the Caribbean, some scheduled, some chartered. Some larger airlines, among them Air Jamaica and American, also provide a number of inter-island flights. Some flights are seasonal, operating only in the winter high season.
Within the Bahamas, Bahamasair flies from Nassau to more than a dozen Bahamian destinations; another dozen airports are served by smaller airlines.
In the Caribbean, LIAT, Caribbean Airlines, Air Sunshine, Cape Air, SVG Air and Winair are among the airlines that provide regular service to the islands. Some small airlines serve only islands near their immediate area. Air Caraibes, for instance, connects France’s islands in the Caribbean, and Mustique Airways serves islands of the Grenadines.
Of course, flying isn’t the only way to get around the islands. The number of cruise ships plying the Bahamas and Caribbean has increased dramatically over the past two decades, siphoning off some visitors who otherwise would have traveled by air and stayed over in the islands. (Numbers cited in this article deal only with visitors who stay over on the islands.)
Another way to reach some islands is by boat ferry, particularly between islands that are close to each other. Many such vessels operate regular runs between certain destinations, and they cost considerably less than air service.
Five different ferries, for example, cross the narrow passage between St. Kitts and Nevis. Eleven ferry companies take passengers between France’s Caribbean islands — Guadeloupe, Martinique, Les Saintes and Marie-Galante. Eight service Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, seven operate in the American Virgins.
And just since December, it is now possible to travel by boat ferry from South Florida to the Bahamas. Balearia Bahamas Express makes the 76-mile run from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Bahama Island in 2 1/2 hours, and may start service to Bimini later this year.
Inter-island boat ferry services are offered between a number of Bahamian islands. Within the Bahamas, for example, Bahamas Ferries runs high-speed ferries between Nassau and Harbour Island, Eleuthera and Andros, and medium-speed ferries to Eleuthera, Andros and Exuma. From Marsh Harbour, Albury’s Ferry Service operates to Elbow Cay (Hope Town), Man O War, Guana and Scotland Cays, and from Treasure Cay it serves Green Turtle Cay, Guana, Man O War and Elbow Cays. In addition, the slow and somewhat rustic Bahamas Mail Boats call at 14 Bahamian islands.