Countering the downturn in cruise numbers thus far this year in the Cayman Islands is an upswing in air arrivals and hotel occupancy, according to figures released by the department of tourism.

"We had artificially high cruise numbers in 2006, due to hurricane damage in Cozumel [Mexico], which temporarily shifted cruise calls to Grand Cayman," said Charles Clifford, tourism minister.

"We knew numbers would be adjusted downward as the port situation in Mexico was resolved."

Cruise visitors to the Cayman Islands in 2007 totalled 1.7 million, a 9.2% dip compared with 2006. In January, cruise arrivals totalled 195,000, a decline of 13% compared with the same month last year.

However, air arrivals topped the 25,000 mark in January for the first time since 2004. The biggest increases came from Canada, followed by the U.S. and the U.K.

Hotel occupancy rates for the month averaged 71.3%, up from 68.7% in January 2007.

Clifford had warned of a softening in the Caribbean cruise market when he addressed the Cayman Islands' annual Tourism Exchange last spring, and he noted recently that "other mature ports in the Caribbean, including Aruba and Jamaica, also declined" last year.

Factors at play in the cruise market downturn in the Cayman Islands include "the year-round redeployment of some cruise ships to European ports, the state of the U.S. economy and our port facilities in George Town," according to Clifford.

He said that as larger ships came on line, action was needed regarding the facilities at the cruise port in George Town.

"With 1.7 million cruise visitors last year, we were getting too many ship calls on the same day of the week, creating traffic and congestion in George Town and longer wait times to tender in the passengers," he said.

Plans call for cruise and cargo locations to be separated, leaving the George Town facility exclusively for cruise tourism. 

Environmental and design studies for the port redesign will begin once agreements have been signed with the port developer.

Meanwhile, expansion at Owen Roberts Airport is under way. A new ticketing lobby, domestic hall and immigration facility are slated for completion early next year.

Phase two will include a new international departure hall and jet bridges, set for August 2009; in the third phase, the existing terminal will be renovated.

However, the expansion may come with a price. Under consideration is an increase in the current $25 departure tax. Clifford said no decision has been made.

The Cayman Islands soon will launch several initiatives targeted at boosting travel in the summer season.

"We have always positioned ourselves as a destination for the luxury market, but we also offer products and services aimed at midmarket travelers," Clifford said.

Niche market development, also a top priority, will get a boost with the launch this month of the Cayman Islands Environmental Project for the Tourism Sector.

Seven resorts will join the Department of Tourism and the Department of the Environment in a pilot project aimed at making the Caymans a sustainable destination.

"Tourism development in the Cayman Islands is located within a sensitive coastal zone. We're aware of the need to protect the environmental resources that attract visitors to our destination in the first place," Clifford said.

The properties are the Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort and Pirates Point Resort in Little Cayman; Brac Reef Beach Resort in Cayman Brac; and Compass Point, Sunshine Suites and Cobalt Coast Resort in Grand Cayman.

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

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