NEW YORK -- Introducing the new twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda is a lot like unwrapping a birthday present or unveiling a statue, said Harold Lovell, the islands minister of tourism and civil aviation.

Antigua and Barbuda are back was Lovells message to tour operators, hoteliers, travel agents, airline representatives and media at a recent reception in New York to kick off the destinations tourism initiatives.

The minister delivered a similar message at the Caribbean Tourism Conference in St. Thomas last month.

In the past 10 years, we have been under the Caribbean radar screen, Lovell said. Weve had a relatively limited presence in the North American market, but were ready to roll now.

A new government came into office last year, and with it the winds of change and plans for the re-emergence of Antigua and Barbuda on the Caribbean tourism scene.

One of the first developments was the appointment of Derede Samuel-Whitlock as U.S. director of the Antigua and Barbuda Department of Tourism, based in New York.

We know theres a desire for information regarding our islands, and now were able to provide it, Samuel-Whitlock said. Sometimes there is an advantage to being out of the limelight for a while, but now there is a need to expose our destination.

By the numbers

According to Lovell, the tiny archipelagos new marketing and promotion plans are designed to dramatically build awareness and visibility of and for Antigua and Barbuda.

The effort couldnt be of more importance: Tourism accounts for 55% to 86% of Antigua and Barbudas combined gross national product, depending on how it is measured and what kind of a year we are having, he said.

This year, leisure visitor figures through August reflected a dip of 4% in arrivals, to 166,831, over the same period a year ago.

The cruise market dropped more -- by 9%, to 304,992 passengers -- over 2004.

January and March were our best months this year, but we need to even out the peak season and broaden our market in the summer months, Lovell said.

The U.S. is Antigua and Barbudas second-largest source market after Europe, with the U.K. sending the most leisure visitors.

The U.S. used to be our biggest market, but it fell off after 9/11, Lovell said. 

New airlift out of U.S. gateway airports might help: The Dec. 18 launch of Deltas nonstop service from Atlanta to Antigua on Wednesdays and Sundays could beef up the U.S. market this winter.

Antigua also is served by American Airlines, Continental Airlines and US Airways.

Barbuda, which is 27 miles northeast of Antigua, is served by Carib Aviation from Antigua. Ferry service also is available.

New tourism initiatives include:

" The renovation and expansion of Antiguas V.C. Bird Airport, a 10-year project to upgrade departure and arrival terminals at the aging facility and to expand the runways and ticketing areas.

" The opening of the $80 million Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium, now under construction, for the 2007 Cricket World Cup, to be held in the Caribbean for the first time.

" The destinations hotel inventory -- which currently stands at 3,000 rooms in 60 properties in Antigua and fewer than 50 rooms in three properties in Barbuda -- will get a sizable boost with the addition of 180 suites to the existing 193-unit Sandals Antigua Caribbean Village and Spa resort.

The $65 million Mediterranean Village expansion at the Sandals property is set to open in November 2006. New Mediterranean Village facilities will include the eastern Caribbean regions largest freshwater pool, poolside cabanas and more dining and shopping options.

" Extensive road repair projects and a new airport terminal are planned for Barbuda.

The island, best known for its beaches and its Frigate Bird Sanctuary -- the second-largest in the Western Hemisphere -- also may be in line for a luxury hotel development within the next few years, according to Lovell.

" A new Hospitality Training Institute will be established on Antigua, along with a Service Ambassadors Program, by December 2006.

The training facility will be a place where we can train and teach our people the importance of tourism to our islands, according to Samuel-Whitlock. 

Samuel-Whitlock said that all hospitality employees in Antigua and Barbuda will have to be certified as service ambassadors in order to work in tourism and related industries.

For more information, visit the Antigua and Barbuda Dept. of Tourism Web site at www.antigua-barbuda.org.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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