The winter season forecast for the Caribbean is a mixed bag, according to tourism officials, hoteliers and tour operators, who caution that while the region will see no accelerated growth, visitor numbers and revenue will surpass winter 2009-2010.

Growth in Caribbean visitor numbers through August this year is measured at 3%, according to U.N. World Tourism Organization data.

"Results prove that international tourism continues to recover from the declines suffered last year under the impact of the economic crisis," the survey said, with some regions recovering faster than others.

Key to a destination’s rebound is easy air access, said Greg Thorne, vice president of Inter Island Tours/Cheap Caribbean.

As an example, he cited strong advance bookings for the Turks and Caicos, due to airlift from the East Coast, including the Feb. 17 debut of JetBlue’s daily flight from New York Kennedy and seasonal Saturday-only service from Boston Feb. 19 through April, coupled with Continental’s four-times-a-week service from Newark starting Feb. 18 (it goes to daily on March 6).

Tom Romans, director of sales for Hyatt Resorts Caribbean, is delighted that Continental is adding a second nonstop from Newark to Curacao on Dec. 18.

Breezes Runaway Bay"Additional airlift is vital to the island’s tourism industry," Romans said. "It indicates our travel partners have faith in the destination’s ability to attract visitors."

Airlift, combined with hotel deals, augurs well for a strong winter, according to Thorne.

"There are some incredible values in the marketplace," he said. "Resorts continue to offer incentives and discounts. The destinations are coming to the table with increased marketing funds, and hotels have a better handle on what they want to do in 2011."

Incentives such as early-booking bonuses help the region’s climb back to normalcy.

Paul Pennicook, president of International Lifestyles, which represents Breezes Resorts, reported that clients "have responded positively to the early-booking-bonus sale. Our resorts are pacing off last year for the winter season; the North American market is the primary driver in this growth."

Also predicting increased sales is Island Routes Caribbean Adventure Tours, which operates 24 retail locations on five islands. The firm forecasts that bookings will top the 150,000 garnered in its first year of operation.

While at this point no destination expects a full rebound to pre-2008 visitor numbers, there’s optimism in the air.

St. Maarten is calling for a 5% visitor increase in 2011, based on the 2% jump from January to June 2010 and "aggressive marketing plans worldwide."

Elite Island Resorts’ winter season advance bookings are up 11% over the same period last year, according to Steve Heydt, president.

Kevin Froemming, president of Unique Vacations, worldwide representative for Sandals and Beaches Resorts, reported a 10% jump in bookings for the winter.

"2011 is starting strong, and we’re expecting that strength to last all year," he said.

While admitting that advance bookings "are tricky to gauge even in the best of times," Gwenn Feliciano, director of business and product development at Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort in Grand Bahama, said, "Since we are located so close to the U.S. mainland, we’re seeing a nice boost for travel through June 2011."

Feliciano attributed the boost to marketing promotions, including a Companion Flies Free offer currently in effect.

"Best pace in bookings in the past five years" was the report from Jamie Holmes, general manager at Nisbet Plantation in Nevis.

This report appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of Travel Weekly.


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