WASHINGTON -- Despite the economic downturn in the U.S., spiraling fuel costs and greatly reduced air service to the Caribbean, the region's tourism leaders appear uncharacteristically proactive, prepared, confident and united in grappling with a sandstorm of problems.

Nowhere was this new attitude more evident than at the first Annual Caribbean Tourism Summit here last week, orchestrated by the Caribbean Tourism Development Co., the joint marketing and business development unit of the Caribbean Tourism Organization and the Caribbean Hotel Association.

Finding new ways to survive and even grow this changing market in challenging times was the focus of the summit, an unprecedented gathering of leaders from the political, tourism and investment communities and the Caribbean diaspora in the U.S. capital.

The region must make "a quantum leap" in its business practices to adapt to the challenges, said Allen Chastanet, co-chair of the CTDC.

"A quantum leap represents a radical change forever," Chastanet said. "It is a total departure from the old way of doing things. We are at a point in our history that we are poised to respond to our challenges by making such a quantum leap."

Steps have already been taken. Caribbean heads of state will vote on financing a long-talked-about regional marketing and destination branding campaign at the upcoming Caricom (Caribbean Community) meeting in Antigua on July 2.

Other issues on that agenda include resource sharing, market diversification and initiatives to ease the pain of the loss in air service.

"Billions of dollars of investment and thousands of jobs are exposed," Chastanet said, referring to announced cutbacks in flights and service, particularly by American Airlines, which carried more than 60% of the passengers who traveled through San Juan last year.

Other carriers are expected to make similar moves. Spirit Airlines recently announced it would close its San Juan hub.

American Airlines cuts

American now expects to cut daily flights to San Juan from U.S. mainland gateways from 93 to 51 in September in addition to cutting American Eagle connections out of San Juan to various islands throughout the region.

The flights are being cut despite increases in tourism this year to many islands, including double-digit growth in U.S. visitors to Antigua, St. Lucia and Jamaica, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

The Dominican Republic, meanwhile, reported 407,000 U.S. tourists from January through April, a 6% increase compared with last year, and Puerto Rico reported increased airline passenger traffic, as well.

Enrique De Marchena, the new president of the Caribbean Hotel Association and the co-chair of CTDC, cited the coming together of the public and private sectors to strengthen the Caribbean brand at the conference.

"This gathering is a strong step in the right direction toward forging the partnerships necessary to help our region grow," De Marchena said.

Adolfo Franco, foreign policy adviser on Latin America and the Caribbean to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), outlined McCain's vision for the Caribbean region.

"There is no longer any debate regarding the importance of the region," Franco said. "It represents big investments, potential business and an enormous diaspora. There is an unparalleled strong partnership in the U.S. with the Caribbean region's friends and allies."

If elected, Franco said McCain would offer "more opportunities and less government regulation" to and for the Caribbean region.

Dan Restrepo, serving in the same capacity for the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), said Obama "will never hesitate to reach out to the Caribbean diaspora. The broken immigration system must be fixed to bring 12 million Caribbean nationals out of the shadows."

Restrepo said Obama, if elected, would focus on "vocational training, debt relief and a new hemispheric security approach to confront and combat transnational crime" in the Caribbean region.

Capitol Hill meetings

Caribbean tourism ministers attending the summit met with members of the U.S. Congress in briefings on Capitol Hill. Discussion topics included the impact of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and possible measures that would afford preferential treatment for visitors to the Caribbean, such as reductions in departure taxes, increases in duty-free allowances and more preclearance facilities in the region.

Keynote speaker Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, described current aircraft as "highly fuel-inefficient" and warned that if fuel costs per aircraft mile were not reduced, "the situation will continue to have an immense impact" on the Caribbean region.

The bottom line, said Greenspan, is that "oil will never go back to $20 per barrel. We'll see ever-increasing jet fuel prices but even more fuel-efficient jet engines."

He urged tourism leaders to consider economic investments as a big-picture, long-term objective, warning that investors might be scared away from the region for the next few years because of the economy, fuel costs and reduced airlift.

Nevertheless, Greenspan said, "Capital will flow where profits can reasonably be projected 10 or 15 years down the road."

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