Rosecita Jeffers returned to the St. Kitts Tourism Authority as CEO in August after a hiatus of five years, during which she ran her own event-planning business.
It is good to be back, she said. But for Jeffers, as for most tourism officials, the last eight months "have proven a real challenge."
Jeffers is up to the challenge, however. "Last year was decent for St. Kitts in terms of visitors," she said. "We gained more than 9,000 visitors over 2007, with more than half from the U.S., which was up 10% over the previous year.
"But we're taking nothing for granted in this economy, and this year we are far more aggressive in the marketplace. We've taken a tactical approach, knowing we had to adjust, be visible and take action to minimize the visitor fallout," Jeffers said.
What is critical is that "we continue to market our destination in as many venues as possible. If we don't, we stand to lose brand awareness. Our competition these days is global."
Through March, St. Kitts saw a global decline in stayover visitors of between 15% and 30%, although the U.K. market began to strengthen when a weekly nonstop flight from London's Gatwick Airport was introduced by British Airways in January.
The closure of the 196-room Four Seasons Resort on sister island Nevis "definitely impacted the high-end travel market for both islands this winter," said Jeffers.
The resort suffered hurricane damage last fall and is now on target to reopen in November.
St. Kitts has close to 1,200 hotel rooms, while Nevis counts 400.
Although the U.S. remains the primary market for St. Kitts, accounting for more than 60% of visitors, slippage has occurred across the board this year in leisure, incentive and meetings bookings.
"People just don't have the confidence right now to commit to travel in the face of the economic situation," she said. "We remain committed to the high-end market -- we depend on those travelers -- but our niche markets are developing quite well," she said.
Cruise tourism, however, is robust, according to Jeffers. St. Kitts welcomed more than 350,000 cruise passengers this winter and is expecting half a million next season.
"The Port Zante cruise facility is well developed and well planned," Jeffers said. "Depending upon the length of the cruise call, passengers have loads of options, including beaches, mountains and shops."
The most popular attraction is the Scenic Railway, also known as the Sugar Train, a revitalized narrow-gauge train that connects the island's former sugar plantations.
Adventurous clients can hike 3,792 feet above sea level to the Mount Liamuiga extinct volcano or stay on level ground and explore the 38-acre Brimstone Hill Fortress, the only manmade Unesco World Heritage Site in the Eastern Caribbean.
Basseterre, the capital, has its National Museum, shops on every corner and the Berkeley Memorial Clock.
Fort Street is the main drag, with vendors, stalls and small restaurants.
The 2,500-acre Christophe Harbour development on St. Kitts' southeastern peninsula remains on track. Phase one, an 18-hole golf course, will be completed next year. Groundbreaking took place in March for the first homesite that will form the residential component of the project.
A megayacht marina and two five-star hotels, including a 125-room Mandarin Oriental resort, will anchor the entire development. The site is under consideration by Ritz-Carlton, as well.
"People are buying these homesites," Jeffers said. "The residences have topped $40 million in sales already."
Other resort projects on the island include the Marriott St. Kitts Beach Club and Ocean's Edge Resort.
Airlift to St. Kitts includes a weekly Delta flight from Atlanta; American's twice-daily flights from Miami and two a week from New York Kennedy; US Airways' weekly service from Charlotte; and American Eagle's daily service from San Juan.
Winair ceased its 30-year service to St. Kitts last month, leaving LIAT as the only scheduled carrier flying from nearby St. Maarten, which also serves as a gateway for St. Kitts.
"LIAT will be adding more flights between the two points to pick up the slack," Jeffers said.
Travel incentives laced with value-added strategies include the Fall in Love promotion, which offers seven nights for the price of five, valid May 1 through Dec. 19 at nine hotels, and programs for small properties under 100 rooms.
Playing to the social networking market, St. Kitts has a Facebook page, My St. Kitts.
The 13th annual St. Kitts Music Festival, June 25 to 27, will feature an all-star lineup, including Jamaican-born Movado, Regina Belle and T-Pain. Details are available at www.stkittsmusicfestival.com.
The festival "is always a big draw for St. Kitts and helps fill a gap in the off season, especially with hotel packages tied into the festival events," Jeffers said.