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FREEPORT, Bahamas -- Although the new passport regulations remained front and center on the minds of everyone -- from government tourism executives to tour operators and hoteliers -- ministers of tourism from more than 20 Caribbean countries took a break from all the passport talk to detail strategic plans that included increased hotel inventories, sustainability initiatives and optimistic winter season forecasts.

In a marathon day of 20-minute press conferences held during the opening day of the 29th annual Caribbean Tourism Conference here on Oct 22, which was likened to "speed dating, media-style," tourism plans were revealed and branding campaigns unveiled.

According to Aloun N'dombet Assamba, Jamaica's minister of tourism, an island-wide beautification project is in place in Jamaica to "welcome the increased influx of visitors," as the island saw a 17.2% increase in visitor arrivals from January through September 2006 over the same period last year.

The airports in Montego Bay and Kingston are undergoing an upgrade with streamlined procedures at the airports to allow passengers with "No Goods to Declare" to walk through customs without having to be checked or interviewed.

In addition, the Norman Manley Airport in Kingston is receiving a three-phase, $80 million expansion that includes a new departures terminal and four passenger-loading bridges, while the customs hall at Montego Bay Airport is being expanded and the parking gates increased from 20 to 23.

On the hotel front, a certification program for disabled-friendly hotels will include ratings for properties "to help the physically challenged identify properties catering to their specific needs," the minister said.

More than 12,000 new rooms will be added in the next four years, significantly boosting the current room count of 23,000 rooms.

Meanwhile, a bed 'n breakfast program will launch Dec. 1 with 500 rooms in 160 Jamaican homes. "This is in response to the growing need for ordinary Jamaicans to get involved in tourism," Assamba said.

In other CTC-29 news:

" Noel Lynch, minister of tourism for Barbados, said that the probable merger between LIAT and Caribbean Star "will result in a much more efficiently run airline. There have been too many seats chasing too few passengers. That will change now."

Lynch reported that year-round special events "will fill in the traditional tough periods. As an example, Barbados will host the World Cup of Golf in early December, a traditionally slow period for visitor arrivals."

In 2009, Barbados will open a new marina to cater to a new niche market for the island, the mega-yacht market, Lynch also intimated.

" Edison Briesen, tourism minister of Aruba, said that the island's new Rumba Aruba marketing campaign is designed "to retake control after a year of challenges" (a reference to the case of Natalie Holloway, the Alabama teenager who went missing on Aurba in May 2005). "The year 2006 has been one of renovation, rejuvenation and repositioning of Aruba."

Among the developments are JetBlue's launch Dec. 15 of daily nonstop service from New York (Kennedy); a $26 million renovation at the Hyatt resort, which will be completed next March; a $35 million re-do of the airport, and an expansion of the cruise terminal.

" Several hotel projects are underway in Trinidad, according to Jim Hepple, director of tourism and president of the Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Council. These include the Holiday Inn Express, opening in January, the 428-room Hyatt Regency in September 2007 and a $40 million renovation of the Trinidad Hilton by December 2007.

In time for the Holiday Inn's opening is a bevy of new air service: Delta will launch nonstop service four times a week from Atlanta to Port of Spain, Trinidad on Dec 9 and weekly service from Atlanta to Tobago beginning Feb. 17.

" According to Henry de LaGarde, director of tourism and general manager, North America, U.S. Virgin Islands., development projects include the Yacht Haven Grande and the new dock facility at Crown Bay Center, both in St. Thomas, and the revitalization of the Frederiksted area in St. Croix.

In the air, new lift includes service on Northwest Airlines with weekly nonstop flights from Detroit beginning Jan. 6 to St. Thomas, and daily service from Fort Lauderdale to St. Thomas on Spirit twice a day from Dec. 14 to Jan. 12.

Winging it

" In St. Vincent and The Grenadines, the $170 million Argyle International Airport, set to open in 2011, "will open the destination up to jets and nonstop services from the U.S. for the first time," according to Vida Bernard, director of tourism.

" Martinique will offer weekly service from Atlanta to Fort de France, effective Dec. 16 and daily American Eagle service beginning Feb. 1 from San Juan, said Christel Coita, marketing and media relations coordinator, Martinique Promotion Bureau.

" Ronella Croes, Bonaire's director of tourism, reported that Continental will add a second nonstop flight from Newark on Dec. 16. The carrier currently offers a nonstop from Houston. "Growth is on our agenda, and we will add 600 new hotel rooms in the next few years to our inventory," she added.

" Curacao's new international airport, which opened in July, can handle up to 1.6 million passengers a year, according to the tourist board. Hotel occupancies averaged 83.1% from January through June; and hotel rooms will total more than 6,000 by 2009, which is double the current inventory.

Room to grow

" More than 1,000 new hotel rooms will open on St. Lucia by the end of this year, according to Philip Pierre, minister of tourism. That will bring the room count total to more than 6,500. Increased airlift includes Air Jamaica's three weekly nonstops from Kennedy and Delta's daily service from Atlanta.

" Puerto Rico reported more $777 million in new hotel developments over the next few years, more than $400 million in airport improvements and the launch in early 2007 of a booking engine on its Web site,

" Visitor figures for the Turks and Caicos from January through September totaled 181,000 while totals for all of 2005 came to 176,000 visitors, according to Lindsay Musgrove, director of tourism. "We are not going after the masses. We are going after the high-end market," he said.

Hotel room count will rise from the current 5,000 to 8,000 by 2012, he added.

" St.Maarten/St. Martin, now united in promotions and marketing, will have 5,500 new rooms in the hotel inventory by the end of 2007; the $90 million expansions at the Princess Juliana airport will debut on Nov. 10, and will encourage cruise ships to call on days other than Wednesdays and Saturdays when the cruise port is at capacity.

" Ricky Skerritt, minister of tourism for St. Kitts, said that the island's new eight-point strategic tourism plan will focus on the environment, the empowerment of locals and attracting the high-end luxury market.

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

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