Sheraton Puerto RicoSAN JUAN -- What will it take for the Caribbean region to recover from 2009?

The question was posed to several hoteliers, operators and tourism ministers who attended the Caribbean Marketplace event held here from Jan. 10 to 12. The annual conference is sponsored by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

Everyone had their own wish list, but the answers in a random sampling of conference attendees had universal overtones: niche market development, increased airlift and room stock, upticks in stay-over numbers and cruise calls, a resurgence of the corporate and meetings market, and the implementation of a regional marketing formula to fund Caribbean-based promotions.

Getting more airlift is the priority for Colin Piper, director of tourism and CEO of the Discover Dominica Authority. Dominica currently is served by six Liat flights a day -- four from Antigua and two from Barbados -- in addition to a daily American Eagle flight from San Juan.

"We are surrounded by five islands with international airports," Piper said. "We lengthened the runway at our airport and have completed electrical work to permit night landings. Now it is up to the airlines to decide if they want to offer a night flight, connecting from one of the main Caribbean hubs."

If night flights were added, Dominica's dive market would increase, giving divers on a one-week package same-day access and two more days of diving.

Dominica is known for its hiking trails, diving, whale-watching, its Carib Indian settlements and its festivals.

New this summer is the HikeFest, three weekends of hiking parts of the south-to-north trail called Waitikubuli, the indigenous name for Dominica, which means "Tall is her body."

"Four segments of the 13-segment trail are finished. This will open up more experiences for the adventure market," Piper said.

Dominica's stay-over numbers declined 13% from the U.S. in 2009, while cruise arrivals rose 37.8%, from 380,000 cruise passengers in 2008 to 532,000 in 2009.

Bonaire's tourism director, Ronella Tjin Asjoe-Croes, also wants more lift from the U.S. "We can fill the planes," she said. "We just need the airlines to provide the flights."

Bonaire's room stock currently stands at 1,300 units and will get a boost from the 120-room Bonaire Hilton, a condo/hotel project opening in 2012.

Asjoe-Croes also wants more windmills. Several are operating now as alternative energy sources, and by mid-February, 50% of Bonaire's energy will be wind-generated. "The windmills are a real breakthrough, but we could do with more of them," she said.

Aruba's tourism minister, Otmar Oduber, who took office in October, wasted no time in setting his priorities.

He plans to enhance and emphasize Aruba's cultural offerings, which includes the rejuvenation of the capital of Oranjestad, a three-year, multimillion-dollar project that will feature a 10-mile-long landscaped park along the coastline from the airport to the resorts along Palm Beach.

"Aruba has great lift from the U.S., with 13 carriers coming in," Oduber said. "Those flights run full at decent rates. KLM returns Feb. 1 with two flights a week from Amsterdam to bolster our European market. We've got great repeat numbers, but the tourism product must always be fresh."

He warned that hotels "need to be cautious and well-disciplined regarding rates. We do not want to let consumers get too much control over pricing."

Convention bookings are high on the wish list of Randall Ha, general manager of the new Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino. The hotel opened in November across from the Puerto Rico Convention Center.

"We are getting the business, especially from convention groups booking for 2011 and beyond," Ha said. "That will be a bumper year for the meetings and conventions market, but it will take aggressive selling and creative pricing to recover from the downslide of the last year and a half."

The questions were asked, and the answers given, prior to the news of the Haiti earthquake on Jan. 12. The answers might have been a bit different had that devastation already occurred.

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