Encouraging signs point to "progressive improvement" in Caribbean tourism this year, according to Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

While officials are reluctant to forecast percentage gains in arrivals this year over last year, Riley described the U.S. as on the rebound.

"The official scenario is one of hope and optimism," Riley said during a state-of-the-industry analysis. "We are happy to see a reduction in the size of the blow we experienced in 2009."

He pointed to the single-digit unemployment rate in the U.S. this month, down from 10% last month, as a "reason for hope."

Click on chart for larger viewAlthough 2009 tourist arrivals overall declined 3.6%, to 22.1 million visitors, down from 22.9 million in 2008, fourth-quarter arrival figures showed the first increase all year, posting a 1% rise, far better than the 6.6% drop in the first quarter. (Click on chart for larger view.)

Riley described the decline as "consistent with the decline worldwide."

In 2009, Jamaica and Cuba fared the best in terms of visitor increases, topping out at 3.6% and 3.5%, respectively. The Dominican Republic, a top contender in past years for high arrivals, had a modest 0.3% gain, according to Winfield Griffith, the CTO's director of research and information technology.

The Eastern Caribbean region (Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines) was the hardest hit by reduced arrivals, showing an overall 12.3% decline in 2009.

Countries in that part of the Caribbean posted double-digit drops with the exception of St. Lucia and Dominica, which had more modest decreases in visitor numbers.

The Dutch Caribbean (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, Saba and Statia) fell 3.7%, while the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico each registered drops of 3%.

Impact of British tax

Griffith attributed an 11.8% decline in U.K. visitor arrivals, in part, to the increase in the Air Passenger Duty, which took effect in November and upped the tax on travel to the Caribbean from the U.K. A second increase in this tax is planned for November, although the CTO "will continue to lobby for the tax to the Caribbean to be the same as or less than the tax for travel to the U.S.," Griffith said.

HavanaHotel rates in the Caribbean fell more than 13% last year, affecting revenue per available room through the third quarter.

"Visitors spent less last year, which indicates considerable prudence in their spending," Riley said.

A bright spot last year was cruise tourism, particularly in the fourth quarter, "holding steady with a 1.4% increase in 2009 as compared to a 3% drop in 2008," Riley said.

This was helped along, in part, by the long-awaited arrival of Royal Caribbean International's Oasis of the Seas in December. "Other megavessels are in the pipeline and will continue to aggressively market the Caribbean region," he said.

In assessing the state of the industry, Riley said, "We look at different markers, including the Consumer Confidence Index, unemployment figures in the U.S., the housing market and the stock market, because their performance plays a part in a consumer's decision to travel."

Riley said that the CTO has not lost focus on travel agents "as an important tool in helping this region once again grow. Agents are central to rebuilding this industry. We will be collaborating with ASTA on specific measures to push that forward."

Helping Haiti move forward

In regard to Haiti, Riley emphasized that "whatever efforts CTO makes in helping that nation recover must be done in cooperation with the government of Haiti."

He said that an upcoming meeting of CTO officials, Haiti decision-makers, representatives of the U.N. World Tourism Organization and Caribbean government leaders "will focus on how tourism as a development tool can help Haiti move forward."

Haiti's future also is on the agenda of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Investment Conference May 4 to 6 in San Juan, sponsored by the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association.

So, too, is Cuba and the opportunities it represents for future investors, if travel to Cuba from the U.S. opens up.

"We are in sync with what Cuba wants in terms of tourism, and tourism to Cuba creates a magnet for more visitors to the region as a whole," Riley said.

Funding for the CTO's long-discussed regional marketing plan is again in discussion mode because, as Riley pointed out, "there is no way to market this region without money, and we cannot ignore the fact that when we market the Caribbean, the visitor numbers increase. We have to find a way to raise money in a sustainable way to promote the region in an ongoing way."

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