Richard Sealy, tourism minister of Barbados, is big on branding and wants to see more of it on his island.

"As a tourism destination, we are a little weak right now in that area," he said. "It's a problem, especially for the U.S. market. Americans respond well to brand names."

Sealy, who took office in January, said, "We are determined to pull more visitors from North America."

U.S. visitors topped the 135,000 mark last year, up 2.5% over last year, and Canada accounted for 53,000 visitors, up 5%.

Barbados welcomed 575,000 stayover visitors in 2007, up 2.1% over 2006. The bulk of visitors came from Europe, especially Britain.

"We're aiming for 600,000 this year," Sealy said. "We got off to a good start."

Barbados spends more of its marketing dollars in the U.S. than anywhere else, and "we should get more visitors than we do," Sealy said.

Sealy's pretty clear about his priorities as tourism minister: additional airlift, more investment, expanded hotel brand presence and upgrades in the destination's tourism plant.

"There are opportunities for more lift into Barbados, and we need to seize them," he said.

Greater foreign investment in Barbados' tourism product is needed, especially in the branding area, according to Sealy.

He pointed out that the Barbados Hilton "does far better with U.S. tourists than with British visitors. Hilton is a known and respected U.S. brand. If we can succeed in luring more brands to Barbados, we can do more business," Sealy said.

Five new brands in the next five years is the target goal, he said. Brands mentioned included Rosewood, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Oasis and Banyan Tree.

Upgrading and improving the overall tourism plant is a major focus of government, the minister said.

Recent hotel upgrades and openings include an across-the-board redo at Sandy Lane, planned for September when the property is closed; the May 1 opening of Casuarina Beach Resort on the south coast following a $30 million expansion; and the 2010 scheduled opening of the 117-room Four Seasons on the west coast.

Guestroom inventory stands at 8,000, with 6,500 rooms in hotels and the rest in bed-and-breakfasts, guesthouses and inns.

Along with increased focus on the hotel lineup, Barbados is expanding its attractions offerings. Harrison's Cave reopened after a year of redevelopment. New features include a fleet of six trams for the cave journey and a Cave Interpretative Center.

The 10 national heroes of Barbados are featured at the National Heroes Gallery, which was recently added to the west wing of the Parliament Building.

To promote and push Barbados' total tourism product, more creative marketing is needed, said Sealy.

"The restructured Barbados Tourism Authority, now headed by Ralph Taylor, plans new marketing campaigns and promotions and will have an electronic platform to do more business in cyberspace," Sealy said.

Niche markets, too, such as conferences; sports; heritage; weddings; and health and wellness, also figure into the government's tourism push.

"These are important sources of revenue and also help to diversify our tourism product," Sealy said.

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

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