Despite a downturn in its overall visitor arrivals for 2012 and the pullout of American's daily flight from New York Kennedy on Jan. 14, there are bright spots on the horizon for Barbados tourism, according to Urban Cumberbatch, acting CEO and president of the Barbados Tourism Authority.
"We were aware for the last seven months that American was going to terminate its JFK service," Cumberbatch said. "It was originally set to happen in August, but we negotiated an extension until January.
"American's decision is part of its strategic realignment and consolidation of its short- and medium-haul flights out of Miami," Cumberbatch said.
American will continue to offer its two daily, year-round flights out of Miami.
However, the Kennedy pullout will leave a gap of approximately 50,000 seats to Barbados each year in the important Northeast corridor, "and we have been working to fill that void," he said.
That work is paying off.
JetBlue, which currently operates five flights a week from Kennedy to Barbados, will increase to daily, year-round Airbus A21 service on Dec. 19, an increase of 580 seats per week each way.
The carrier also filed to offer more capacity during peak holiday times, including Presidents Day and Easter, subject to government approval.
"JetBlue has been a trusted partner to Barbados since 2009, moving large numbers of visitors and members of the diaspora to our island each year," Cumberbatch said. "We are extremely pleased with this news."
The tourism authority is continuing to talk with other carriers, as well, regarding new or expanded services.
Air arrivals year to date are another topic of concern.
"We're down 6.3% overall, which amounts to 25,659 fewer visitors in the first eight months of the year, with the U.S. market down 9.7%," Cumberbatch said.
He attributed the decline to the changing nature of the airline industry, with less capacity in source markets, as well as the slow pace of the economic recovery.
In addition, the Air Passenger Duty (APD) tax in the U.K. has "severely impacted" Barbados' main source market, according to Cumberbatch.
The APD, instituted in 1994, is an environmental tax levied on all airline flights originating in the U.K. with the amount levied based on the distance to the destination country's capital city.
Caribbean tourism ministers, industry associations, airlines and government officials have lobbied to have the tax reduced, saying it is unfair because the region has been placed in a band that makes travel to the Caribbean disproportionately more expensive than flying from London to the U.S.
The most recent increase, in April, put the tax at $126 per passenger traveling in economy class from London to the Caribbean.
Another increase is set for April 1.
Cumberbatch said that the APD has affected and changed the travel patterns of British travelers, reducing their travel to Barbados from an average of three trips a year to one.
"Our goal is to sustain visitor arrivals all year round and to do away with the peaks and valleys that now exist," he said.
The Barbados Island Inclusive program, launched in May and in effect through Dec. 21, was designed to do just that, at least for seven months of the year.
"We are using the island as a 'property' itself with the premise that visitors spend money in the destination on myriad services, restaurants, car rentals and sightseeing to stimulate the economy in slow periods," Cumberbatch said.
The program offers spending vouchers of $150 per person for a stay of at least five nights at participating properties or $200 per person for a stay of seven nights or more based on two people per room.
Vouchers are distributed to guests upon check-in, together with a list of participating service providers.
"The program picked up steam over the months, and the visitor numbers for September, which are always low because it is the slowest month, were the same, but not lower, than September 2012, so there was no decrease there," Cumberbatch said.
There's progress on the hotel front, according to Cumberbatch.
Sandals plans to build a Beaches resort on the site of the former Almond Beach Resort in St. Peter; the Four Seasons 115-room resort, a long-stalled development, appears back on track for now with a projected 2015 opening; and a U.S. hotel chain plans a 150-room property near the planned Sugar Point cruise terminal.
"The cruise project development is on stream," Cumberbatch said. "The dredging process has begun, and we're targeting a 2015 completion date for the first phase."
The new cruise terminal will replace the existing cruise terminal, which will be turned into a cargo port.
Barbados plans to continue its mega-fam program, which brought 300 agents to the island in June.
"We are behind our travel agent partners and we will continue to support them, and we thank all our industry partners for their patience and understanding as we navigate through difficult times," Cumberbatch said.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.