ith red, white and blue-spangled fanfare, the U.S. Virgin Islands will host the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO)'s 26th annual Caribbean Tourism Conference (CTC) -- the first to be held in the U.S.V.I. -- from Oct. 13 to 18.

The industry gathering traditionally draws upwards of 1,000 delegates, including 300 or so mainland U.S. travel agents and tour operators, plus government representatives and tourism officials from 32 Caribbean nations, well-known speakers, panel members and media.

The conference is a big deal for the host destination which, for many years, has been either the Bahamas or Puerto Rico, with Aruba, Barbados, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica occasionally varying the pattern.

Not many islands have the convention space, hotel rooms and budget to host a group this large.

This year's conference venue is the 480-room Marriott's Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Beach Resorts on St. Thomas, with pre- and post-tours offered to neighboring St. Croix and St. John.

By coincidence, it was at Frenchman's Reef in 1976 that a constitution was drafted that would, in 1989, merge the existing Caribbean Tourism Association and the Caribbean Tourism Research and Development Centre into the present Caribbean Tourism Organization.

The U.S. Virgin Islands "welcomes the opportunity to showcase our product and play a role during a critical time in the history of travel and tourism in helping our industry shape decisions that will be crucial to determining how the Caribbean will fare in the global marketplace," said Pamela Richards, the commissioner of tourism.

This year's conference theme reflects those sentiments: "Recovery and Growth in a Fiercely Competitive Environment."

Jean Holder, the CTO's secretary general, said that various strategies "will be explored to build on the positive signs of recovery that are emerging in our tourism industry."

The Caribbean's tourism industry has shown signs of recovery after two difficult years, Holder said.

He cited the 7% increase in stayover arrivals last winter over the same period in 2002 and a 5% upswing in cruise passenger visits.

Hugh Riley, the CTO's director of marketing for the Americas, said that sessions and workshops at CTC-26 "will focus on practical approaches to sustaining and building on this recovery."

Sessions will explore such topics as cooperative strategies for recovery and growth; Caribbean product positioning; cruise industry analyses of recovery and growth; and the role of information technology as a tourism builder.

However, CTC-26 won't be all workshops and meetings. The Department of Tourism conference planners, working with CTO staff, called on local businesses to help coordinate events such as a special edition of the territory's carnival parades, a food fair, waterfront fireworks, shopping tours, lunch aboard a cruise ship in port and submarine rides.

Monique Sibilly Hodge, assistant commissioner of tourism, said agents will be able to inspect small inns, hotels, new restaurants and attractions on St. Thomas and St. John on a product tour offered during the conference.

The same holds true for those who sign up for the one- or two-night St. Croix agent tour before or after the main event.

Conference preparations, which began months ago, Hodge said, ranged from securing room allotments for delegates at more than nine properties on St. Thomas to setting up the opening ceremony, on the campus of the University of the Virgin Islands, where Gov. Charles Turnbull is expected to speak.

The welcome reception following the ceremony will take place at Havensight Mall near the West Indian Co. cruise ship piers. "Stores and restaurants will remain open in Havensight that evening for the delegates," Hodge said.

"Every government department and hundreds of individuals are involved in this conference -- from police and fire to health, security, customs and immigration," Hodge said.

A Youth Congress involving 24 tourism students from various Caribbean islands will take place simultaneously with the conference.

Meanwhile, the CTO's staff has worked on securing corporate sponsorships of conference receptions and banquets, finalizing speakers' itineraries and working within the conference budget.

"This is a coordinated effort and undertaking that symbolizes the spirit of cooperation between the public and private sectors that is a driving force in our industry," Riley said.

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

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