SAN JUAN --- The long-awaited Caribbean tourism recovery, which stalled after the first quarter last year due to the war in Iraq, may actually happen this year, according to projections, estimates and year-end figures tallied by regional tourism officials and hoteliers gathered at the Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA) annual Marketplace event here.

Simon Suarez, CHA president, reported that figures through August 2003 showed a 6% overall growth over the same period in 2002.

"Visitor arrivals are solidly on the positive side, especially in Cuba and the Dominican Republic," Suarez said. "Airlift to most destinations has increased. Consumer confidence appears strong, the Euro is strong, the weather is cold in the Northeast -- all these factors are encouraging for travel to the Caribbean."

Here are some particulars:

• Hotel occupancy in Puerto Rico increased last year to pre 9/11 levels. "At 65% for a year-round average, we approached close to the figures for 2000, which was a real boom year," said Jose Suarez, head of the Puerto Rico Tourism Corp.

Puerto Rico's hotel inventory increased by 655 rooms last year, representing a total investment of $130 million in three new properties last year: the 255-room Courtyard by Marriott in San Juan, which opened last January; the 112-room Rincon of the Seas in Rincon on the West Coast; and the 156-room Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort & Spa on Vieques, which opened last February.

Openings this year include Paradisus Sol Melia, Puerto Rico's first all-inclusive opening March 20 in Rio Grande on the island's East Coast; the Hampton Inn in Cayagas; and the 156-room Costa Bonita on Culebra.

In addition, construction starts in the first quarter on the Condado Trio project in San Juan, the Mandarin Oriental in Palmas del Mar, and the Fairmont Coco Beach, also on the East Coast.

• American Express will launch its "Beyond the Beach" cardmember promotion and incentive program with 10 island partners Jan. 15. The partners are Aruba, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St. Martin/Maarten and the Riviera Maya part of Mexico.

The program, which can be booked from Jan. 15 to April 30 for travel through August, offers a Vacation Value card for discounts at shops and restaurants, bonus membership award points and a one-year subscription to Travel + Leisure magazine.

Credits will be given in the amount of $100 for green-card members and $150 for gold-, platinum- and centurion-card members who book through an American Express travel agent and spend more than $2,000 on their air/land vacation components.

• Wyndham unveiled two new TV commercials airing in the U.S., which promote its Wyndham by Request features.

Rich Cortese, executive vice president, reported that Wyndham's family and FIT business "did well last year. We hope the corporate, group and incentive business returns this year. If so, it will be a stellar year."

Wyndham improvements include the addition of 37 new one-, two- and three-bedroom units at Las Casitas in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, bringing the total number of units to 156 units, as well as complementary transfers from the mainland to Vieques; and ongoing room renovations at Wyndham Rose Hall in Jamaica and Sugar Bay Beach Resort & Spa in St. Thomas.

In addition, the hotel firm hooked up with Viva Resorts' seven all-inclusive properties the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Mexico to "give us a leg up in inclusive [market] in the Caribbean," Cortese said.

Viva Resorts' president Ettore Colussi said that the inclusion of Wyndham "will help us attract the U.S. market to our resorts."

• The 228-room Hilton Santo Domingo will open in late spring on the waterfront in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and will be targeted at the corporate market.

Meanwhile, the Hilton Barbados will open at the end of 2005, on the site of its original property near Bridgetown, which was razed several years ago.

• The Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange (DATE) will take place April 28 to 30 in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

• Improvements at SuperClubs' resorts include a new Japanese restaurant at Grand Lido Negril (Jamaica); redone bathrooms at Hedonism II (also in Negril); and the addition of Internet cafes at all the resorts, according to president John Issa.

"Tourism looks good for us," Issa said. "Growth in our markets is positive for the first time in a long time, and the economy seems to have stabilized."

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

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