ORANJESTAD, Aruba - Caribbean tourism officials meeting here in the wake of a damaging hurricane season are optimistic about winter business.

In fact, they're predicting a record season that would be a complete comeback from the decline set off by the events of 9/11 three years ago.

The optimism of tourism ministers, speakers and others at the Caribbean Tourism Organization's 27th annual conference is based on strong arrival figures through September in most of the region, a spirit of cooperation between destinations and cruise lines and the stimulative effect of service by low-cost airlines such as Spirit, JetBlue and Song.

This is not to say that tourism leaders have forgotten the dire situation on hurricane-damaged islands, especially Grenada and Grand Cayman.

In fact, relief efforts for the impacted islands gained momentum during the conference, with more organizations stepping up to the plate to render assistance.

William Joseph, director of tourism for Grenada, described island damage of "Biblical proportions physically and psychologically," but assured conference delegates that "Grenada will move forward as a nation." The scheduled arrival of two cruise ships on Oct. 26 and 27 "is important for our psyche," he said.

On other fronts, CTO's new chairwoman, Pamela Richards,  set the tone for her two-year term in her inaugural message.

"Many challenges exist for the Caribbean tourism industry, but through CTO's relationships with both the private and public sectors, we will face them head on and excel," said Richards, who is commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The following are other highlights at the CTO conference:

- Jamaica felt "very little post-Ivan falloff in September," according to Paul Pennicook, director of tourism.

Numerous hotel projects, a new ad campaign and increased airlift "bode well for the winter and beyond into 2005," he said.

- The British Virgin Islands will implement a hotel industry standards system "to assure a quality accommodations product to match our island product," said Kedrick Malone, director of tourism.

- Puerto Rico gained seven new carriers for the winter, which represents an increase of 24% in seat capacity from the U.S., according to Milton Segarra, interim executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Authority.

- Noel Lynch, minister of tourism for Barbados, at a session titled "The Ins and Outs of Cruise Tourism," proposed an independent study of cruise and land-based tourism and how their interaction affects tourism in Barbados.

"Most cruise passengers only remember the food they ate on a cruise. I want them to remember visiting Barbados and want them to return as a land-based vacationer," he said.

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