NEW YORK -- Its economy might be battered and its visitor numbers down, but the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism is fighting back with a series of bold initiatives and infrastructure upgrades designed to bolster the destination's tag line and slogan of "It's better in the Bahamas."
"The challenges are here, but we are addressing long-term improvements and creative marketing efforts to market the Bahamas now and in the future rather than limiting our efforts to the search for the perfect deal or discount," said Vernice Walkine, director general of the Ministry of Tourism.
Although overall visitor figures for the first quarter dipped only 1.2%, this included a 15.5% drop in air arrivals over the same period last year, outstripping the 5.5% increase in cruise passenger traffic, according to figures released by the Central Bank.
The visitor drop has had an impact on the entire destination, including New Providence (Nassau and Paradise Island), Grand Bahama Island and the Family Islands.
Airfares are a key issue, Walkine said.
"We are the closest destination to the U.S., especially from Florida, and our fares should not be among the most expensive," she said.
Tourism officials will begin testing a lower-fare program to Grand Bahama in July that, if successful, will roll out to Nassau and the Family Islands later this year.
One key feature of the program is the reduction or elimination of airport fees. Current roundtrip fares from New York to Grand Bahama range from $500 to $800, of which $142 represents government taxes and fees.
The program will feature a $200 nonstop, roundtrip fare from New York to Grand Bahama and a $99 roundtrip fare from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Grand Bahama, according to Walkine.
"We need to make the Bahamas an obvious choice as a destination by offering our visitors the least expensive way to get to us," she said.
Hotels, which already offer numerous value-added packages, have indicated they would step up their programs in line with the lower fares, according to Walkine.
Another effort to ramp up Grand Bahama, where air arrivals declined 28.9% from January through April, will be the year-round Club Grand Bahama program, designed to turn the island into the Bahamas' first all-inclusive destination and "give Grand Bahama the kind of competitive lift it needs," Walkine said.
The program officially launches June 15. Land pricing on the all-inclusive packages covers accommodations in three rate categories, from budget to luxury; all meals and beverages; and transfers and activities, representing savings of up to 40% over standard plans.
Participating properties represent 2,000 rooms. A sample three-night, all-inclusive package with air from New York to Grand Bahama and accommodations at the Westin Grand Bahama will be priced at about $1,400 for two, said Walkine.
Infrastructure improvements include the $400 million expansion and upgrade of Pindling Airport in Nassau, set for a 2012 completion, and the Nassau Harbor Port Improvement Project, which will finish up in November.
The harbor project will deepen and widen the channel and upgrade the harbor area to accommodate Royal Caribbean's 5,400-passenger cruise ships, the first of which, the Oasis of the Seas, will call in December.
In addition, the project calls for a waterfront promenade, repairs to existing piers and construction of new security facilities at Prince George Wharf, where the ships now dock.
"The port project has accelerated the downtown improvement program, which includes significant road improvements to alleviate the traffic congestion," Walkine said.