Opening ceremony at Caribbean Travel MarketplaceNASSAU -- An air of optimism dominated the 30th annual Caribbean Travel Marketplace at Atlantis Paradise Island resort, a marked contrast to the past three conferences, when the storm clouds of the global recession hovered low over the event.

Wholesalers and tour operators who met with Caribbean hoteliers and vacation suppliers at the event here last week were buoyed by reports of strong winter bookings for hotels large and small, longer vacation stays, improved levels of customer satisfaction and upticks in several market segments, including group, incentive and luxury.

The Marketplace is sponsored by the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA).This year's event attracted more than 1,190 delegates, including 350 buyers representing 140 companies from 18 countries, among them Russia in its Marketplace debut.

Preliminary figures compiled by the Caribbean Tourism Organization indicate that arrivals to the region grew 4% in 2011 over 2010, setting a record of 24 million visitors.

Lodging data from Smith Travel Research released at the Marketplace show that occupancy rose 61.7% in 2011, while average daily rate was up 2.6%, to $167.54, and revenue per available room increased 5.2%, to $103.57, the highest since 2009.

Confirming the trend, Expedia revealed it achieved significant growth for the region in 2011.

Gloria Jones-Knapp, general manager of Bacolet Beach Club, a boutique property on Tobago, summed up the feeling of many hoteliers at Marketplace.

"It's going to be a good year," she said. "I see that in the forward bookings, which show me that people are ready to travel again. We all just want the momentum to continue, but it requires vigilance, hard work and consistent delivery of a quality product."

Hubert Ingraham and Josef ForstmayrAirlift, however, continues to be a major thorn in the side of tourism officials. In his opening speech, CHTA President Josef Forstmayr reminded delegates that a lot remains to be done, citing "outrageous" ticket prices for flights into the region as a cause for concern while attacking "bureaucratic indulgencies" for hindering inter-Caribbean tourism.

Lengthy queues at regional airports and challenging visa applications were particular challenges, he said.

"There are no 'drive-ins' in the Caribbean," Forstmayr said. "Many of our guests arrive by air, and CHTA estimated that in 2010 the Caribbean governments collectively paid $45 million to secure airlift, only to find that the lift still is inadequate and way too expensive for our visitors."

The selling floor of the Marketplace was a frenzy of activity as buyers and sellers met in 15-minute appointments to negotiate rates for next winter.

Also at the Marketplace:

  • Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham predicted that after two years of economic difficulty, "this year will mark the start of the recovery, the inevitable return to growth."
  • Wykeham McNeill, Jamaica's new minister of tourism and entertainment, reported "a sellout of rooms in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios for the Jazz and Blues Festival last week," noting the "great synergy between tourism and entertainment."
  • May Ling Chun, director of the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau, reported that the destination's cruise visitors in 2011 topped the 1.6 million mark. The destination will implement a Tourist Information Statistical System this year "to better track visitor information, such as vacation satisfaction, length of stay and activities," Chun said.

For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 

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