Although 2011 proved a delicate balancing act for the Caribbean and Mexico alike, though for different reasons, 2012 appears brighter and more prosperous.

True, challenges still lie ahead, and neither region is back to the heady days of late 2007/early 2008, the barometer against which the industry currently measures visitor numbers, spending, bookings, business climate, investor confidence, pipeline development, hotel openings and airlift.

Both regions battled their own demons in 2011; both enter 2012 with fairly realistic ambitions, recognizing that the path ahead is strewn with neither roses nor with thorns.

In fact, it's a bit of both, so watch where you step.

High airfares, diminished airlift access, low hotel occupancies and a drop in visitor on-island spending plagued many Caribbean destinations, but resort credits tacked onto value-laden packages helped mitigate ticket prices, fill seats on planes and eventually drive heads into beds.

Anguilla beachRecovery from the global recession seemed to move at warp speed at first. The deals were out there, but travelers appeared reluctant to part with vacation money and time as long as concerns over 401(k)s and job security dominated the home front.

Month by month, confidence built. There are more winners than losers in the year-end stayover visitor figures sweepstakes in the Caribbean, with Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Curacao, the Cayman Islands, Barbados, Antigua and Anguilla emerging as the front-runners with higher numbers than last year.

"The forecast is positive, the outlook for 2012 is bright, although profitability and growth still have not reached the levels of 2007-'08," said Josef Forstmayr, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. "We have all been affected by the economic downturn. When tourism flourishes, we know there is a trickle-down effect, and the general economy flourishes, as well."

Social media gained a strong foothold in 2011, a trend that will continue in 2012 as tourism officials and hoteliers increase their use of social platforms and apps to tout their products. Their messages run neck and neck with consumers who don't hesitate to tweet, blog and post Facebook updates about every aspect of their lives, but especially about their vacations.

Recession breeds markets

Following two flat years, several markets are set to re-emerge in 2012, including luxury, weddings, family travel and groups.

Even the meetings business is beginning to reanimate. The recently renovated and reopened Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort in St. Thomas reported strong group bookings for 2012 "and an even stronger group base going into 2013 and 2014," according to Jose Gonzalez, general manager.

Look for positive tourism news from Haiti as investor confidence replaces tent cities and tarps. In 2014, Marriott will open the first branded hotel in a country still in recovery mode from the 2010 quake.

The door opened a crack in Cuba in 2011, thanks to the Obama administration's reinstatement of the people-to-people category of authorized travel. Several licensed operators jumped on that bandwagon: Insight Cuba led the pack, operating six carefully crafted itineraries.

All-inclusive resorts emerged stronger and more popular than ever in 2011 in both the Caribbean and Mexico, a trend that will continue, predicted John Long, vice president of sales and marketing for Iberostar Hotels & Resorts.

The firm recently opened the Iberostar Cancun, its ninth all-inclusive in Mexico in addition to its resort portfolio in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

"At a time when costs are watched and budgets calculated, the all-inclusive is the perfect fit," Long said.

Mexico turns the corner

For AMResorts, "The good news for 2012 is that the pace of bookings has picked up, but we all worked harder to achieve our goals and objectives in 2011," said Matt Mullen, senior director of sales. AMResorts provides sales, marketing and brand management services for a portfolio that includes five all-inclusive brands with 14 properties in Mexico, three more set to open in 2012 and properties in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.

Chichen ItzaWhile it's boom time for all-inclusives, at the same time there's a move toward midmarket properties in top resort destinations, as evidenced by Marriott International's new deal to launch its moderately priced Fairfield Inns & Suites brand in 36 properties across Mexico over the next few years.

Bill Marriott, chairman and CEO of Marriott International, said at the December opening of the first Fairfield Inn in Los Cabos that the move signaled the company's confidence in Mexico.

Sweet words for the country, whose tourism product was dealt severe blows in 2011 from a wave of crime and violence splashed across international headlines. While the incidents primarily were confined to nontourist areas and did not target visitors, Mexico tourism officials battled consumer perceptions, public image, State Department travel advisories and geography for much of the year.

Despite high satisfaction levels from visitors returning to the U.S. after a vacation in Mexico, tourism officials recognized that the country had "a perception problem regarding safety and security that is hurting our business," in the words of Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, COO of the Mexico Tourism Board.

That perception was a tough nut to crack, but intense efforts from the highest levels of government, including President Felipe Calderon, who served as tour guide to highlight Mexico's attractions on a PBS documentary, began to reap benefits.

As the year drew on, "there seemed to be far fewer questions regarding safety and a lot more interest in events, promotions and winter season offerings," Lopez-Negrete said. "We are starting to turn the corner."

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

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