The West Indies is an unofficial grouping of island countries and territories in the Atlantic Ocean, running from the southern coast of the United States in North America to the northern coast of South America, in the region generally known as the Caribbean. Despite their name, the West Indies are unrelated to India. Rather, the name was coined by Europeans to distinguish the islands of this region from India and the "East Indies" of southeast Asia—a westward route to which Columbus believed he had discovered when he became the first modern European to set foot in the Bahamas in 1492.
The West Indies includes three separate island chains, each of which are geologically distinct from one another: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Lucayan Archipelago, more commonly known as the Bahamas. Outside of this guideline, however, the roster is less clear. Because West Indies is an informal term, the precise list of countries and territories that make up the West Indies may differ according to the source.
The UK territory Bermuda is the most notable example of this deviation. Bermuda is excluded by some sources because it is geographically distant from other West Indian nations. However, it is included by other sources because its culture is closely aligned with that of the other West Indian nations. Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago are similarly excluded at times, though less often. By most accounts, the West Indies comprises 13 countries and approximately 20 dependent territories.
Tourism plays a major role in the economies of most islands in the West Indies, which are famous for their tropical beaches and blue ocean waters and frequently rank among the best countries to visit. This is particularly true during the winter months of November, December, January, and February, when the weather is cold in the more temperate regions of North America.
Tourism in the West Indies plummeted during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, as it did across much of the world. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the number of international visitors dropped from more than 6.4 million in 2019 to barely 2.5 million in 2020. Several other West Indian countries suffered even more precipitous declines. However, the tourism industry has rebounded significantly since the abatement of the pandemic, and the Dominican Republic set its all-time record for monthly tourists in July 2022.
Although the term West Indies is often used interchangeably with the term Caribbean, the two have different meanings. Caribbean is the broader of the two terms and may include not only the optional West Indian nations such as Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Bermuda, but also countries along the coast of mainland Central America and South America, such as Belize, Guyana, and Venezuela, which could arguably be Caribbean countries, but are not considered part of the West Indies.
The Greater Antilles is made up of the islands of Cuba, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola, which is divided into the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Of these, four are sovereign states (independent countries) and two are dependent territories: Puerto Rico (US) and Cayman Islands (UK).
The Greater Antilles has a land area roughly nine times larger than that of the rest of the West Indies combined, as Cuba and Hispaniola are the largest and second-largest islands in both the West Indies and the larger Caribbean region by a significant margin. The population gap is similarly lopsided, with Greater Antilles having a population of roughly 40 million people, while the cumulative population of the rest of the West Indies totals less than five million.
According to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the Dominican Republic is the most-visited island in the Caribbean, having welcomed more than 6.4 million tourists in 2019. Moreover, fellow Greater Antillean countries Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica ranked second through fifth in 2019 with nearly 4.3, 3.2, and 2.7 million annual visitors, respectively. Cuba, in fact, is the second-most-visited communist country in the world (behind China), with its capital city of Havana serving as a particularly popular destination.
Smaller in size and population but greater in number are the Lesser Antilles, which include three smaller groups—the Leeward Islands, the similarly named Leeward Antilles, and the Windward Islands—as well as the isolated islands Barbados, Trinidad, and Tobago.
As in the Greater Antilles, many island nations of the Lesser Antilles, such as Aruba, Curacao, and the Virgin Islands (which are geographically located in the Greater Antilles, but are considered part of the Lesser Antilles politically), are popular tourist destinations known for their warm weather, beaches, and natural beauty.
|Anguilla||Leeward Islands||Montserrat||Leeward Islands|
|Antigua and Barbuda||Leeward Islands||Nueva Esparta||Leeward Antilles|
|Aruba||Leeward Antilles||Saba||Leeward Islands|
|Barbados||Isolated||Saint Barthelemy||Leeward Islands|
|Bonaire||Leeward Antilles||Saint Kitts and Nevis||Leeward Islands|
|British Virgin Islands||Greater Antilles||Saint Lucia||Windward Islands|
|Curacao||Leeward Antilles||Saint Martin||Leeward Islands|
|Dominica||Windward Islands||Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||Windward Islands|
|Federal Dependencies of Venezuela||Leeward Antilles||Sint Eustatius||Leeward Islands|
|Grenada||Windward Islands||Sint Maarten||Leeward Islands|
|Guadeloupe||Leeward Islands||Trinidad and Tobago||Isolated|
|Martinique||Windward Islands||US Virgin Islands||Greater Antilles|
The northernmost countries of the West Indies lie above Cuba and Hispaniola, where the Caribbean Sea gives way to the Atlantic Ocean. Just southeast of the US state of Florida, a chain of more than 3,000 islands, cays, and islets (most of which are small and uninhabited) make up the Lucayan Archipelago, which is split into Turks and Caicos Islands (an autonomous UK territory) and the Bahamas (a sovereign state).
The Bahamas consistently ranks as one of the top tourist destinations in the West Indies, and attracted nearly 2 million international visitors in 2019 (UNWTO data). The Turks and Caicos Islands ranks in the top 10 as well, attracting nearly half a million tourists in 2019 despite having an area of just 948 km² compared to the Bahamas' roughly 10,000 km².
The UK territory Bermuda lies further north, at the same latitude as the state of North Carolina and well into the Atlantic Ocean, but is often considered part of the West Indies because of its similar/shared culture. As in most countries in the West Indies, Bermuda's tourism industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the number of international visitors in 2020 dropping to less than 20% of the 2019 total. However, the industry is in the process of bouncing back, and the last remaining COVID-related travel restrictions were removed in late 2022.
West Indies Classification
|Puerto Rico||Territory (US)||Greater Antilles||4,931,000||3,882,000|
|Cayman Islands||Territory (UK)||Greater Antilles||2,334,000||660,000|
|Bermuda||Territory (UK)||Bermuda Archipelago||805,000||51,400|
|Turks and Caicos Islands||Territory (UK)||Lucayan Archipelago||1,599,000||370,400|
|British Virgin Islands||Territory (UK)||Lesser Antilles - Greater Antilles||895,000||83,000|
|Anguilla||Territory (UK)||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Islands||166,000||41,000|
|Montserrat||Territory (UK)||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Islands||19,300||7,700|
|Guadeloupe||Territory (France)||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Islands|
|Martinique||Territory (France)||Lesser Antilles - Windward Islands||919,000||523,600|
|Saint Martin||Territory (France)||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Islands|
|Saint Barthelemy||Territory (France)||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Islands|
|Dominican Republic||Country||Greater Antilles||7,550,000||2,748,000|
|Trinidad and Tobago||Country||Lesser Antilles - Isolated||480,000||141,000|
|Barbados||Country||Lesser Antilles - Isolated||966,000||546,000|
|Saint Lucia||Country||Lesser Antilles - Windward Islands||1,220,000||432,500|
|Grenada||Country||Lesser Antilles - Windward Islands||526,000||217,000|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||Country||Lesser Antilles - Windward Islands||404,000||155,000|
|Antigua and Barbuda||Country||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Islands||1,035,000||276,000|
|Dominica||Country||Lesser Antilles - Windward Islands||322,000||140,000|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||Country||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Islands||1,107,000||301,400|
|Curacao||Constituent of Netherlands||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Antilles||1,293,000||436,000|
|Aruba||Constituent of Netherlands||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Antilles||1,951,000|
|Sint Maarten||Constituent of Netherlands||Lesser Antilles - Leeward Islands||1,952,000||542,000|
The West Indies consists of three independent island countries and 18 dependent countries.