Caribbean Officials Court Investors In Bid to Stimulate Development

BY DONNA TUNNEY

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Caribbean hotel and tourism officials brought big-money lenders and investors to a conference here in an effort to stimulate development in the region.

The First Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Investment Conference, which was sponsored by the Caribbean Hotel Association and the Caribbean Tourism Organization and attracted 350 delegates, is likely to become an annual one, organizers said.

An investment gathering would appear to be of only passing interest to the U.S. agency community, but a closer look indicates that the financing decisions delegates make as a result of the meeting will determine the kinds of travel products the Caribbean will offer in the future.

In addition to government officials from every Caribbean nation, including Cuba, the event drew representatives from such firms as Ernst & Young, Coopers & Lybrand, The World Bank, European Investment Bank, Citibank, the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Bank of the Netherlands Antilles, to name a few.

The conference venue, Atlantis, was a good example of how one investment often sparks many others.

The sprawling up-market water-themed resort that was financed by Sol Kerzner's Sun International is seen as being largely responsible for the tourism renaissance in the Bahamas.

Since Atlantis opened, countless properties have been renovated and several were bought from the government and transformed into the luxury products operated by the likes of Sandals and SuperClubs.

During the conference, RHK Capital, a Canadian firm, announced it had bought the British Colonial Beach Resort, a historic waterfront property in Nassau, and will invest $100 million to redevelop the site and restore the hotel.

Industry speakers included Robert Crandall, president and chief executive officer of AMR Corp, who delivered the keynote address; Jean S. Holder, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization; John Jefferis, president of the Caribbean Hotel Association, and Gordon "Butch" Stewart, president and chief executive of Sandals and Air Jamaica.

Crandall, who also is president of American Airlines -- the carrier that operates 70% of air lift to the region -- told delegates that between 1985 and 1995, Caribbean tourism grew at an average annual rate of 6.3%, compared with 5.5% for the rest of the world.

He added that visitor spending in the region has increased by an average of 10% per year.

These figures, he told potential investors, illustrate the capacity for continued growth.

Crandall also pointed out some areas that he said need improvement, including telecommunications.

And, Crandall added, Caribbean governments "must redouble their efforts to end the scourge of drug trafficking."

Another speaker, Nicholas J. Pritzker, president of Hyatt Development Corp., said Hyatt constructed the Hyatt Regency Aruba, a 360-room resort, thanks to incentives like debt-service guarantees from the Aruban government and easily accessible work permits for Hyatt employees.

Robertico R. Croes, Aruba's minister of economic affairs and tourism, added that 10-year "tax holidays" and capital contributions from the Aruban government helped to attract 10 hotel projects.

The conference featured financial forums and roundtable discussions.

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