core one for Caribbean buyers and suppliers who stepped up to the plate at the Caribbean Hotel Association's Marketplace in Cancun, Mexico, last month and got down to the business of getting back to business.

That serious theme dominated the agenda of the annual three-day hospitality marketing event, which this year loomed more important than ever.

Ralph Taylor, CHA president, sounded the call for action in his opening address to delegates, who included more than 870 Caribbean suppliers from 348 firms in 36 CHA-member nations and 373 buyers from the U.S, Europe and South America.

CHA officials are hopeful that a regional marketing and promotion plan will increase awareness of the region as a travel destination and of the range of properties and accommodations available to visitors. Above, a view of the Hotel 1829 in downtown Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. The property is a National Historic Site. Despite the falloff in business that began a year ago and the events of Sept. 11, Taylor assured delegates the Caribbean "will survive and ultimately prosper as the most important travel destination in the world." (See related story.)

Although bookings are off, arrivals are down and the outlook through March is "tough," Taylor said he was optimistic an "uptick in the economy and in travel will be evident by the second or third quarter of this year."

Abelardo Vara, president of the Hotel Association of Quintana Roo, the Mexican state in which Cancun is located, expressed concern that pressure from wholesalers and hoteliers to fill rooms at any cost could work against the recovery of the Caribbean.

"Cheaper room rates will not take away people's fear of flying," Vara said. "Reducing rates to cut costs and entice customers affects the quality of service at the properties."

Simon Suarez, head of the Dominican Republic Hotel Association, executive vice president of development for Coral Hotels & Resorts as well as incoming CHA president, said the need for joint marketing efforts to promote the region's recovery led to an emergency promotional fund put together by 32 CHA destinations.

"We received pledges from members for $8 million to promote the Caribbean as one destination," Suarez said.

Sources of additional funding are being sought.

The regional marketing plan, which has been kicked around for years, might actually be launched this year, Taylor said.

The events of Sept. 11 proved to be the catalyst. Caribbean heads of state have met twice since last fall to develop a strategic tourism program, the full details of which are expected by June.

Meanwhile, a campaign on cable TV launches with four spots this month under the theme, "Life Needs the Caribbean."

The ads will carry a toll-free number and a tag line for consumers to call agents.

In other news from the conference:

• Bahamas' deputy director general of tourism, Vernice J. Walkine, said the destination's new national ad campaign "promotes several of our tour operators' packages on cable TV networks and in print in markets that have shown strength since Sept. 11."

Walkine called the launch of the year-round campaign "very timely."

"Despite the industry downturn after Sept. 11, our figures demonstrate that the Bahamas held steady in terms of visitors because of our proximity to the U.S. mainland, direct flight and ship access and interchangeable currency," she said.

"This campaign increases our visibility and stimulates demand."

In fact, initial visitor figures for 2001 show the Bahamas was down only 0.5% compared with 2000, which was a record year, according to Walkine.

Cruise passenger arrivals were up 5.2% last year compared with 2000.

• Jamaica's director of tourism, Faye Pickersgill, reported that declines since Sept. 11 are leveling off.

"Jamaica was hit hard last fall, but we are climbing back," she said.

A six-week national TV campaign was launched Jan. 7 to build on the destination's solidarity message begun immediately after Sept. 11.

"We are going after niche markets, special events and spring breakers," Pickersgill said. "We are confident the market will rebound this year, and we want to reclaim our share of business."

With the meetings and incentives market in mind, Jamaica announced construction of a 75,000-square-foot convention center in the Rose Hall area of Montego Bay, planned to open in the fall of 2003.

Dunn's River Falls near Ocho Rios will get a $3 million upgrade of facilities for visitors, such as dressing rooms, concessions and shops.

Likewise, improvements are planned for the Rio Grande river-rafting attraction.

The Port Antonio Marina will feature 32 new slips by June, when Jamaica hosts the Tall Ships event.

Major road improvements are planned on the route linking Kingston and Ocho Rios.

• Coral Hotels & Resorts, with four properties in the Dominican Republic, will open the 217-room Crowne Plaza Malecon in Santo Domingo in spring 2003.

Coral will operate the resort, which will be branded as a Crowne Plaza property.

Later this year, Coral Hotels & Resorts will launch a major promotional campaign and revamp its Web site to be more agent-friendly, according to Suarez.

More than 150 wholesalers are expected at this year's Dominican Republic Travel Exchange in Punta Cana April 11 to 13, up from last year's figure of 117.

• Wyndham Hotels & Resorts is seeing some resurgence in the meetings business postponed from last fall.

Tim Rector, regional director of sales and marketing, said group bookings at Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Country Club in Puerto Rico "showed some movement in February. Our call volumes and conversions are up, but there still is a big hole to fill."

At Wyndham Rose Hall in Jamaica, which recently opened a new golf course, "reservations are up for March. We are making a big push for our road shows this spring and summer," Rector said.

• Beverly Nicholson, executive director of the St. Thomas/St. John Hotel & Tourism Association, reported bookings "are last minute, but we did end up doing better in December than we had expected. March looks good, as well."

Many of the hotels that laid off employees last fall have recalled most of them.

• Carla Noel, director of tourism for Trinidad and Tobago, said the drop in visitors last year could mean "it will take two to three years before we get back on an even keel."

Marketing and promotion are key elements in raising awareness of the destination, according to Noel, who reported the marketing budget had increased from $4 million to $7 million this year.

"We will follow the niche marketing approach and go after markets such as ecotourism, honeymoon, golf and sports. We will be careful where and how we spend our money," she said.

• Caribbean Star Airlines, based in Antigua, launched a Quality Service Initiative last month that gives a free ticket to every passenger on a flight that departs more than 30 minutes late.

Tom Scarlett, director of sales, said the initiative runs through March 14 and the free ticket is valid for travel through December.

In addition, the regional carrier, which serves 11 Caribbean destinations, has expanded several of its routes and is adding Tobago, St. Maarten and Nevis to its network.

Caribbean Star, now listed in all CRSs under the 8B code, has updated its Web site at www.flycaribbeanstar.com.

"We pay 10% commission with no cap and we offer discounted travel agent rates," Scarlett said.

• St. Maarten launched a $1 million promotion Feb. 3 called "Double the Value, Double the Fun," which offers value-added packages at participating properties.

The packages can be booked through Travel Impressions.

Regina M. LaBega, director of tourism, said the program, valid through June 30, is "traditionally a summer promotion, but we launched it now as a direct result of a drop in business and the state of the economy."

On St. Martin, Bernadette Davis, tourism director, listed a number of new attractions for visitors, including a West Indies waterfront mall in Marigot, with Creole houses; a new marina in Marigot that will be completed in April; renovation of the Grand Case airport so it can accept American Eagle flights, and upgrades at a number of hotels.

The first St. Maarten/St. Martin Annual Regional Tradeshow is set for April 25 to 27 and will include representatives from 13 northeastern Caribbean islands.

LaBega said the event is geared to "many smaller properties that cannot afford to attend the larger Caribbean conferences."

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