With the economy pretty much in shambles, Caribbean officials are revising forecasts, tweaking predictions, planning initiatives and lowering expectations for the winter season.
The latest visitor statistics from the Caribbean Tourism Organization, released Oct. 8, weren't bad for the most part. Of the 26 destinations reporting, 14 posted moderate increases in air arrivals through August. Cruise traffic gained in 11 of 20 destinations.
Then came September.
Although the impact of the global economic mess is still to be measured, no one is overly optimistic about the first quarter of 2009.
What is certain is that the tourism landscape has changed.
The U.S. Virgin Islands, which recorded a 5.9% jump in U.S. air arrivals compared with a 2.5% dip in cruise passengers, has launched a $1.5 million, 45-day ad program targeting its core markets.
The campaign's centerpiece is the USVI's Winter Escape promotion, offering incentives and discounts that total close to $2,000 for a stay of five or more nights.
"We're looking at the first quarter of 2009," said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism. "It will be flat at best, because we know travelers are delaying vacation decisions and rethinking vacation plans. This is not just a Caribbean problem, [it] is a global situation."
As a destination, the USVI "must have strong visibility and exposure now. We can't wait until early December to get this message out," she said.
The ads will not only be on radio, online and in print, but also in elevators in key office buildings in metro areas.
"It's a strong visual reminder, a way of motivating people to travel by getting them to think about it. We're working closely with our industry partners on this," Nicholson-Doty said.
The USVI plans to roll out a new branding strategy, new collateral materials, a marketing campaign and a website relaunch in the first quarter of 2009, initiatives that were in the works even before the economy tanked.
The Bahamas posted a 2.2% decline in air and cruise arrivals, to 2.3 million, from January through June compared with the same period a year ago.
The number of cruise visitors decreased by 3.8%, while arrivals rose 1.1%, according to the CTO.
Traffic to New Providence (Nassau) and Grand Bahama fell off dramatically, while arrivals at the Out Islands strengthened by 11.7%.
On top of that, the International Monetary Fund recently slashed projections for growth in the Bahamas' gross domestic product to 1% for 2008 and 1.9% for 2009. These new forecasts represent an official rewrite of original, more optimistic predictions earlier this year.
The numbers prompted former Prime Minister Perry Christie to call on the current administration to convene an economic advisory council.
"We in the Bahamas have begun to feel the effects of the economic crisis," Christie said. "All indications are that things will get worse before they get better. Bahamian workers are affected by the slowdown; tourism is lagging badly; costs are skyrocketing and are jeopardizing the standard of living of thousands of Bahamians."
'Customers care about price'
Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, the Bahamas' minister of tourism, recently unveiled a new tourism strategy against a backdrop of concerns about the impact of the global financial crisis on Bahamas tourism.
Getting visitors to the Bahamas for as low a cost as possible is key, the minister said.
Despite the pullout of several carriers, the reduction in flights from other airlines and the prospect of fuel prices rising again, Vanderpool-Wallace said he would negotiate lower fares and more flights.
"We must take advantage of our proximity to the U.S. market by making sure that the admission ticket -- the cost of getting to the islands -- is as low and as competitive as possible," he said. "Customers care about price. Airlines serving the Bahamas care about their operating costs."
Vanderpool-Wallace said the Bahamas will focus on other markets, too, including China, Russia, India and Brazil.
As part of its effort to boost tourist arrivals and enhance the visitor experience, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism will open a 24-hour, online tourism office at www.bahamas.com.
"Visitors will be able to book restaurants, check out souvenirs and shops and listen to Bahamian music," the minister said.
Although the global economic crises will have an impact on Jamaica's tourism industry, Prime Minister Bruce Golding does not expect a major drop in tourism numbers or revenues, primarily because of "the strength of the Jamaica brand and the intensity of our promotional activities."
Through July, air arrivals grew 5.9%, to 1.1 million, but cruise traffic dropped 6.6%, to 715,424 passengers, over the same period a year ago.
Those numbers are a far cry from the target goal of 5 million visitors a year by 2012, set earlier this year by Edmund Bartlett, the country's minister of tourism.
He's outlined several initiatives to cushion the financial crisis, which include a focus on growth markets for Jamaican tourism, such as Spain, China, India and Canada, and investments.
More destination advertising; increased one-on-one visits with Jamaica's tour operator and travel agent partners; and focused fam trips for top producers "are critical to ensure that Jamaica's hotels and attractions are 'top of mind' when travel plans are discussed with clients," Bartlett said.
New marketing strategies aimed at strengthening heritage, sports, health, religious, cultural and gourmet tourism also are in the works.
"We're not going to play dead; we are going to beat this thing. We have new products, great people, Usain Bolt [the Olympic gold-medal sprinter] and price competitiveness," he said.
No worries at Sandals
Butch Stewart, chairman of Sandals Resorts, isn't worried, either. Although new bookings initially dropped 25% across the board when the economy first tanked, "business picked up between 10% and 12% in the days afterward," Stewart said.
"We've had no cancellations, and this downturn has not been as severe as post-9/11 was. We will continue to do what we have been doing: improve, renovate, expand and expose our products," he said.
Stewart predicts "a strong winter season at all our properties, thanks to the support of our travel agent partners."
In the Turks and Caicos, it's the affluent market that will "hold strong for us," according to Wayne Garland, executive chairman of the Turks and Caicos Tourist Board.
In fact, Garland anticipates ending this year with a 3% visitor increase over last year, but he's a bit wary of forecasting 2009 numbers.
Additional lift this winter from US Airways and Delta into Providenciales "signals confidence from the airlines that the destination can fill the seats," Garland said. "That, plus the fact that weather forecasts call for an early and cold winter, and high arrival numbers from Canada could offset any downturn from the U.S. market.
"It's a touch-and-go situation right now. If we need to, we can put stimulus packages in place quite quickly."
Puerto Rico launched a multi-million-dollar marketing initiative this fall that included visits to key U.S. cities, highlighting the island's attractions, accommodations and airlift.
"In spite of the current economic climate, Puerto Rico has a wide array of vacation options and deals at all price points," according to Terestella Gonzalez Denton, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.
"That is our message and will continue to be so," she said.
With advance peak season bookings down 30% in St. Maarten's large hotels, the predicted downturn could force properties to cut their room rates and to pool hotel staff this winter to avoid hiring additional workers, according to the St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association.
SHTA members, representing various tourism industry sectors, described the current economic situation as a "perfect storm" crisis resulting from the combination of cutbacks in airlift, the global financial picture, the fluctuating price of oil and Hurricane Omar's pass-by in mid-October.
"The small hotels are strained, as well, because they are on the same playing field as, and competing with, the larger properties," according to an SHTA report.
In addition to the spectre of a visitor drop this winter, St. Maarten's marine sector predicted a 40% drop in calls from small to medium-sized yachts (40 to 100 feet long), which comprises the bulk of the luxury yacht clientele.
A recent fee increase for yachts "has made St. Maarten less competitive," said an SHTA representative.
Resorts offer discounts, other peak-season deals
If there is a silver lining to this cloud of economic uncertainty, it's that Caribbean peak season hotel packages haven't been this affordable or value-loaded in years.
Resorts have loosened minimum-stay restrictions, rolled out discounts and even done away with blackout periods in some instances.
For example, Elite Island Resorts' seven luxury properties offer a 50% discount on a five-night, all-inclusive stay from Jan. 3 through April 18 when booked by mid-November. Thus, the all-inclusive per-room, per-night rate for two at Palm Island, a private island resort in the Grenadines, drops from $855 to $428, even during the holiday season.
At Elite's Long Bay Resort and Villas on Tortola, British Virgin Islands, summer rates apply to Christmas rates; at Elite's Verandah Resort & Spa on Antigua, kids get free room, board and activities during the holiday season.
A different version of a room rate discount program is in effect for Ritz-Carlton's Reconnect offer, which is tied into a nightly resort credit at its five resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean.
"Reconnect is created to offer guests value at our hotels," said Ezzat Coutry, senior vice president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. "The program is designed around a daily credit that can be used at our spas, restaurants, golf courses and in the Ritz-Kids programs."
The credit ranges from $110 per night at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan to $200 per night in St. Thomas.
Starwood Hotels and Resorts rolled out a promotion last month that offers 50% off a second night at 500 properties in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean for bookings through March, including the Westin St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Although Grace Bay Club in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos "has not seen a drop in bookings," Nikheel Advani, COO of Grace Bay Resorts, is taking no chances.
The resort's fall promotion, which runs through Dec. 20, throws in a free night on a three-night booking and also offers a free stay and free meals for kids under 12 years of age.
Grace Bay's value add-ons resume Jan. 4 through Feb. 12 and feature a $500 resort credit on a three-night stay, a free night on a four-night booking and a $2,000 credit for use in the spa, restaurant and sports facilities for a penthouse stay of four or more nights.
Just down the beach from the Grace Bay Club is the recently opened Seven Stars resort, which is launching its first winter season with a 15% commission incentive for agents and free nights for clients. The high-season promotion, valid from Nov. 16 to May 31, carries no blackout dates and offers a 20% discount on food, drink, spa treatments and boutique purchases and two free nights on a seven-night booking.
Upgrades are the focus of Club Med's winter promotion, which runs from January through June when booked by Dec. 20.
Guests can upgrade to a suite or deluxe room for no additional charge at the eight Club Meds in the Caribbean, Mexico and in Sandpiper, Fla.
Travel Impressions and Sandals Resorts' Suite Obsessions offer rewards to agents who book clients in a suite or higher by Nov. 20 for travel by March 31.
Agents earn their standard commissions plus up to $350 in booking incentives and an additional $25 for each butler room category booked. -- G.M.