MARIGOT, St. Martin -- Year-over-year visitor arrivals to the Caribbean reflect a solid across-the-board increase, thanks to the rebound in luxury travel and slow but steady gains in leisure travel.

Even so, Ricky Skerritt, chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, told delegates attending the CTO's first State of the Industry Conference in St. Martin Sept. 13 to 18 that challenges linger in the wake of the global recession.

Per-visitor expenditures are down, booking windows remain short, airline taxes are high, length of stay is shrinking, the Caribbean region competes with more and more destinations around the world and "today's visitors are discriminating travelers who expect hotel services to be up to international standards," Skerritt said.

"To prosper, we must provide value for travel, affordable airlift and cost-effective marketing strategies," he said.

Keynote speaker Keith Williams, CEO of British Airways, agreed, asserting that "the global recession continues to cast shadows on any growth in tourism. Everything depends on improving the quality of the travel product for our customers."

Williams called on Caribbean tourism officials to continue their aggressive battle against the Air Passenger Duty tiered tax on air travel from the U.K., "which is further dampening down demand to the Caribbean and, in turn, has affected destination tourism numbers and revenues."

That tax, in fact, led British Airways to reduce its summer 2012 schedule to the Caribbean by 6% and increase its service to Florida, a destination for which Brits pay a 20% lower tax rate than they pay in the islands of the Caribbean.

Currently a family of four flying in economy class from the U.K. to Florida pays $375 in APD, while the same family jetting to the Caribbean pays $470.

A profitable region

The Caribbean is one of JetBlue's most profitable regions, according to Chad Meyerson, director of global sales.

"More than 25% of our capacity is dedicated to the Caribbean and Latin America, and this will only continue to grow," Meyerson said.

The carrier currently serves 23 destinations in the region, with a concentration in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

On Nov. 17, JetBlue will launch daily flights from San Juan to St. Maarten and St. Thomas.

Winter season forecasts look better now than at this time last year, he said, "but the booking window still is short, and we hope the demand will hold up."

Also weighing in on the importance of cooperation among players in the region were several regional carriers.

Brian Challenger, CEO of regional airline LIAT, said, "Removing hurdles to intra-Caribbean travel would be a big first step toward making travel work, helping resolve constraints faced by air travelers and satisfying customers' needs."

Hurdles to regional travel include economic conditions, regulatory barriers, technical challenges and the cost of flying between islands.

But Ian Burns, CEO of regional carrier RedJet, asserted that the airlines themselves are the major hurdles to making travel efficient within the region.

"It is essential that the consumer comes first," Burns said.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Armando Pizzuti, general manager of the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino in St. Maarten.

"The hotel sector needs to cater to the Caribbean market just like it does with any other market," Pizzuti said. "Take a look at the Caribbean travelers and give them what they want."

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