Destination updates, high-season deals and winter forecasts dominated the recent Caribbean Tourism Conference in Aruba, which centered on diversifying business amid fierce global competition.

Nelson Oduber, Arubas prime minister, touted the islands double-digit visitor increases this year, crediting the success of partnerships between public and private sectors as a factor behind the growth.

Arubas National Tourism Council (NTC), created in 2002, is committed to matching tourism growth to island needs, Oduber said. Specifics of NTCs master plan will be presented at Arubas annual tourism conference on Dec. 9.

Edison Briesen, Arubas minister of tourism, reported a 19% growth in the North American market this year, with 73% of all visitors hailing from the U.S.

Many of those visitors used travel agents, and Briesen cited the success of the Aruba Certified Expert (ACE) program, which began in 2001 and now has 3,000-plus agents in the U.S.

Other destination highlights:

" Jamaica. Visitors transferring from Montego Bay to Negril now have a smooth, 45-mile drive, which marks Phase 1 of the North Coast Highway project, according to Paul Pennicook, director of tourism.

Phase 2, more than 50% complete, links Montego Bay with Ocho Rios; the final connection is the 75-mile stretch from Ocho Rios to Port Antonio, set for next year.

New air service includes two weekly United flights from Chicago to Montego Bay, beginning Dec. 18; daily service on US Airways from Fort Lauderdale to Kingston, effective Feb. 14; and weekday charter service by MLT Vacations Feb. 4 from Dallas to Montego Bay.

Pennicook said that more than 5,000 rooms will join Jamaicas 25,000-room inventory over the next five years, including the 850-room RIU Palace near Ocho Rios next November and Grupo Pineros three new hotels totaling 1,800 rooms in St. Ann, which will operate under the Bahia Principe name.

Iberostar broke ground Oct. 22 for the first of three hotels totaling 950 rooms in the Rose Hall/Montego Bay area. AM Resorts begins work on four hotels next year that will add 1,700 rooms in Trelawny.

Sandals 360-room Whitehouse opens Feb. 14 on the south coast. Rooms on the Beach, a 104-room SuperClubs (formerly Club Jamaica) property, opens Nov. 15 in Ocho Rios.

" British Virgin Islands. Kedrick Malone, tourist board director, predicted a strong tourist season, helped along by our newest initiative -- the industry-standards program to ensure that our quality of service matches the beauty of the BVI product.

The government will spend more than $1 million for customer-service training at all levels, from taxi drivers to tax collectors. Our front-line people must deliver service that meets or exceeds our visitors expectations, Malone said.

The new standards also apply to the yacht sector, which comprises 50% of the 1,800-room inventory in the BVI and accounts for 55% of all arrivals.

" Nevis. Villa development is a rapidly emerging growth market, according to Helen Kidd, CEO of the Nevis Tourism Authority. Some 50 villas are operational at the Four Seasons Nevis resort. Villa Paradiso, a small complex with three- and four-bedroom units, will add rooms by Thanksgiving.

Kidd said that arrivals are up 12% over last year, and officials predict a very strong winter.

" Barbados. Air arrivals are up 7% and cruise visitors are up 18% to date over 2003, which was Barbados best year ever, said Noel Lynch, minister of tourism.We have a model that works and a private/public sector relationship that produces continued growth.

The Barbados Hilton will have its soft opening in December. This hotel will be a shot in the arm for us, especially its new conference facility, Lynch said.

A new arrivals-and-departures terminal at the airport opens next month. Phase 1 of the seaport expansion is near completion, and the new cruise pier will be in place in 2006.

" St. Maarten. Expanded airlift this winter, the completion of Phase 2 of an $87 million airport expansion and a 20% visitor increase through September has tourism officials predicting a record season.

United starts Chicago service Dec. 18, American returns with daily service from New York (Kennedy) and Miami, Delta offers three weekly flights from Atlanta Dec. 2, American Eagle jumps to eight weekly flights from San Juan Dec. 17 and US Airways offers daily service from Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C.

Regina LaBega, tourism director, said the Front Street beautification project in Philipsburg is finished; coming up is an islandwide beach refurbishment.

" Turks and Caicos. A recent survey indicated that the average daily spending per tourist is $340. That figure, coupled with a projected 30% room increase in the next two years, will pump a lot more revenue into our coffers, according to Lindsay Musgrove, director of tourism.

One development is the Ritz-Carlton located on West Caicos, a short boat ride from Providenciales. Other high-end hotels that will plant their umbrellas along Grace Bay are the Four Seasons and the Mandarin.

Musgrove said that new Island Escape day packages, designed for cruise passengers who want to visit other islands in the chain, will be unveiled.

" Anguilla. The islands first 18-hole golf course debuts in 2005 as does a marketing initiative called Alluring Anguilla Travel Agent Experience, according to Amelia Vanterpool-Kubisch, tourism director.

Anguillas Wallblake Airport expansion, including a runway extension, will be finished in December when the Charming Escapes promotion debuts, described as an affordable way to experience Anguilla by staying at 16 midmarket villas, guesthouses and inns, Vanterpool-Kubisch said.

" Puerto Rico. Sheraton, will be the new convention centers flagship hotel, and it breaks ground next year, according to a spokesman from the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (PRTC). The center itself, expected to open late next year, already has bookings for 2009.

New tourist information centers are open in Old San Juan and at the airport.

Puerto Ricos specialists program for agents soon will go online, enabling agents to take the course on their own schedule and then come to Puerto Rico to complete the course, the PRTC said.

" Grenada. Describing the island as a small player in the tourism industry, William Joseph, tourism director, said, Tourism is a big player in our economy. Although we have hurricane damage of biblical proportions, we have to move forward as a nation.

Strategic goals focus on the economys recovery. With the rehabilitation comes the opportunity to enhance our product and strengthen our standards and building codes, Joseph said. We have to retrain our craftspeople in new skills.

Room inventory before Hurricane Ivan stood at 1,600 rooms. Just about 20% of the rooms now are available. This will rise to 40% in the winter season, Joseph said.

Grenada plans to build an Ivan Museum as a visible aspect of our countrys history, Joseph said.

" Trinidad and Tobago. Continentals new thrice-weekly service from Houston to Port of Spain that began in June will open up new dive and adventure markets for us, said Warren Solomon, tourism director.

Likewise, the new 122-room Courtyard by Marriott, opening Dec. 6 in Port of Spain, opens a new business market for us, as well, Solomon said.

Tourism figures from the U.S. showed a 15% rise through June over 2003.

" Bahamas. New air service from JetBlue, Song and Spirit offers low-cost travel and restores important price levels for the destination, according to Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.

Hotel expansions are massive, including a 1,200-room addition at Atlantis, a $1 billion redevelopment project in the Cable Beach area of Nassau, and the projected 12,000-room Moon Bahamas resort on a man-made island near Grand Bahama, due to open in 2010.

Vanderpool-Wallace said that tax legislation set to take effect in 2006, whereby U.S. meetings can be written off as if they were being held in the U.S., means we will be much more meetings-oriented.

A surge in cruise traffic this year contributed to a 17% visitor increase through August. We were on track for a very good year, but the hurricanes slowed us down, he said.

" St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The region had a 16% jump in arrivals through July, totaling almost 168,000 visitors.

Vida Bernard, director of tourism, said that increased airlift is an emerging trend. We want to update our airport facility on St. Vincent to take advantage of the trend.

The Raffles Resort on Canouan Island recently opened.

" St. Kitts. The 641-room Marriott resort, which opened in 2003, has helped change the way we do things here because now we have a major conference facility, according to Christine Walwyn, CEO of the Tourism Authority.

Golf has emerged as a top visitor activity on St. Kitts. The renovated course at Frigate Bay reopened Nov. 1. A second course is set to open next fall and a third course will break ground in March.

St. Kitts bid to host the Caribbean Tourism Conference next year (Bermuda and Puerto Rico also bid; a decision is expected soon).

" Dominica. We are not a destination for everyone but are well-positioned to offer ecotourism with a focus on nature, scuba, adventure, hiking and rest and relaxation, said Charles Savarin, minister of tourism.

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

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