Targeting the luxury traveler may seem out of sync given the current economic climate of soaring fuel prices, high air fares, inflation and a sagging dollar.

But not to Richard "Ricky" Skerritt, St. Kitts' minister of tourism, sports and culture. "We've got challenges, to be sure, but I'm reading the right market," he said.

When St. Kitts moved from 350 years of sugar production to a tourism-based and tourism-driven economy in 2005, Skerritt was instrumental in orchestrating a revised tourism policy and a strategic tourism plan. Key elements of the plan included the development of high-end resorts with residential components.

"The luxury market continues to look for investment opportunities in second and third homes," he said. "St. Kitts is a fresh opportunity."

However, the current economic scenario forces travelers to be more creative and careful in their quest for vacation experiences, according to Skerritt.

"More than 50% of our revenue comes from tourism. St. Kitts has to fight for market share where there is growth," he said.

And it is the luxury market where Skerritt said the growth was the fastest and the economy was having the least impact.

"We need 200,000 visitors a year to have a vibrant industry," Skerritt said. "We do not need to play to the mass market."

Developments currently under construction on St. Kitts prove his point. The Christophe Harbour resort and residential development on the southeast peninsula includes luxury brands such as Kiawah Development Partners, Auberge Resorts and Mandarin Oriental.

"One in every three clients targeted by Kiawah, for example, already indicated that they were considering St. Kitts as a place to do business and to purchase vacation homes," he said.

Other projects under construction include Kittitian Hill in the northern part of the island, which is taking shape as a sustainable Caribbean community, including a village with a creative arts center, villas, apartments, a cottage hotel, a spa and golf course.

The 40-acre Ocean's Edge condominium resort development in the Frigate Bay area includes beachfront apartments; two-bedroom, hillside units with plunge pools; garden cottages; and three- and four-bedroom villas.

'Fantastic' load factors

First-quarter visitor figures this year indicated a turnaround from last winter, when Skerritt said the island was "clobbered" with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative issue and U.S. arrivals dropped by 9%, resulting in flat growth for 2006. 

Load factors on American's twice-weekly, nonstop service from New York, launched last November, and Delta's Saturday nonstop from Atlanta, introduced in February, "have been fantastic," according to the minister.

"We're pleased, but now we enter the low season, and the extent to which these flights do well over the summer will determine our keeping the services year-round," he said.

The St. Kitts Music Festival, June 26 to 28, is one event that could jump-start the traditionally slow summer months: About 40% of the visitors are from North America and Europe. "We need good attendance to drive summer business," he said.

A bright sign for St. Kitts has been the growth of the cruise sector, due in part to weekly, year-round calls by the Carnival Destiny that began Jan. 10. The Destiny is expected to bring in more than 130,000 cruise passengers to St. Kitts this year.

Skerritt pointed out that cruise visits had a ripple effect, benefitting vendors, restaurants, store owners, taxi drivers and ground operators. "Our cruise growth is more seasonal than daily. We prefer to have a maximum of two ships in at the same time to limit the impact on our infrastructure."

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

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