The spotlight was on the Cayman Islands last month as the destination hosted a sustainable-tourism conference May 21 to 24 and a National Football League event on May 19 and launched a multiyear project to measure the destination's customer-service standards.

In addition, Cayman Airways will begin nonstop service three days a week from New York (Kennedy) to Grand Cayman on June 23 with promotional fares from $399 roundtrip.

The flights will depart New York on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays at 9 a.m. Flights will depart Grand Cayman on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 4:10 p.m.

In addition to conferences and increased airlift is news of a steady growth in arrival figures this year over last. Air arrivals for March stood at 35,416, up 11.6% over March 2006.

Figures for the first quarter were up 13.3% over the same period last year, totaling 86,819 visitors, including a 13.4% jump in U.S. arrivals, according to Charles Clifford, minister of tourism.

"Our focused marketing strategies, coupled with our determination to enhance our product and leverage our partnerships, are paying dividends for the destination," Clifford said.

He attributed the renewed cooperation between the public and private sectors as playing a primary role in the success to date.

However, the arrival statistics are still below those of the post-9/11 years prior to September 2004 when Hurricane Ivan dealt a blow to the destination.

In the cruise sector, passenger arrivals were up 5.9% in the first quarter compared with the same period last year.

In March more than 253,300 cruise passengers arrived in Grand Cayman, the highest monthly cruise figure recorded in the destination.

Sustainable practices

Global warming was a hot topic at the annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development, organized by the Caribbean Tourism Organization and hosted by the Cayman Islands at the Westin Casuarina Resort & Spa on Grand Cayman.

Investing in technologies and practices that sustain the environment and reduce global warming makes economic sense, said Peter Hillenbrand, chairman of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute and the Little Cayman Research Centre, a project of the institute.

Hillenbrand, who addressed conference delegates on the economics of "greening" a business, contends that businesses need to be convinced of the economic benefits of reducing global warming and affecting changes, which require monetary and cultural investments.

"The best way to have people begin living a more sustainable life is to either scare the heck out of them or demonstrate to governments, businesses and families that with improved technology and the decreasing costs of buying this technology, money will be saved and the environment helped," Hillenbrand said.

As host venue, the Cayman Islands used the opportunity to highlight its sustainable-tourism initiatives already in place. These include the Go East initiative, which seeks to bolster tourism on Grand Cayman's East End, and the role of the National Trust in tourism development.

In keeping with the sustainable theme, biodegradable cups and straws and refillable water containers were used during the conference.

Play ball

An event of an entirely different sort, targeted at sports fans, was filmed in Grand Cayman on May 19 and will air on ESPN on Aug. 3.

The Cayman Islands snagged a three-year contract with the National Football League to host the NFL Quarterback Challenge, now in its 17th year.

Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons and Jake Delhomme of the Carolina Panthers were among the quarterbacks participating in a skills competition that measures accuracy, speed, mobility and long-distance throwing.

NFL wide receivers, including Chad Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals, also participated in the "No Huddle" timed event in which quarterbacks complete passes to receivers.

"The Cayman Islands is proud to become the first international destination to host this sports event," Clifford said.

How are we doing?

The Ministry of Tourism launched a three-year, $700,000 project designed to measure the effectiveness of customer service in the destination.

The project is being carried out by FreemanGroup Destinations, a new division of the Dallas-based Freeman Group, a hospitality consulting firm.

Kedrick Malone, managing partner of FG Destinations, is heading the project. Malone is the former director of tourism for the British Virgin Islands.

Raising customer service standards and providing quality customer service are critical components in assuring a high ratio of repeat business in the competitive tourism industry, according to Clifford.

"To contribute to the sustained growth of the Cayman Islands and to maintain a competitive edge in tourism, the quality of customer service delivered has to be elevated to a standard of excellence," Clifford said.

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

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