NEW YORK -- What's sometimes up, sometimes down, often unknown and harder to get than an airline ticket at Christmas?

Destination visitor figures.

The figures are just one method of gauging how well or how poorly a region is doing.

In the Caribbean, some islands report these findings regularly.

Some break the figures out by market; others tabulate charts on air arrivals, cruise calls and hotel registrations.

Some islands do nothing.

What's known thus far from figures released by the Caribbean Tourism Organization: Lenny, the storm that careened from west to east last November, contributed to visitor declines on Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda and St. Maarten this year.

Hotel closings meant fewer rooms last winter. Visitors went elsewhere.

However, all is not bleak. These islands anticipate a strong year-end finish due to reopened hotels.

Airlift is another barometer pushing stats up or down.

CTO's Michael Youngman, director of marketing, put it succinctly: "The destinations with decent air access are doing well. It's that basic."

CTO's figures bear him out. For example, Aruba is up 12.4% in air arrivals through June.

Marcial "Charly" Ibarra, North American director of the Aruba Tourism Authority, said increased lift accounted for the "record numbers" of U.S. arrivals this year.

The Bahamas, too, could set records this year, due in part to airlift, said Vernice Walkine, Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.

The Bahamas does not break figures out by market. The U.S. accounts for approximately 68% of arrivals, which topped 2.6 million through July, a 14.3% jump over the same period last year.

On the flip side, Bonaire's arrivals' drop is linked "to airlift problems," said Elsmarie Beukenboom, head of tourism.

However, eight weekly ALM and Air Jamaica flights address the problems, she said.

What else helps get those numbers up?

Product, for one thing.

Puerto Rico, up 5.2% through May, will maintain the momentum, according to Jose Corujo, executive director of Puerto Rico Tourism Co.

He cited the island's targeted marketing, hotel openings and increased air as reasons.

Rafael Jackson, U.S. Virgin Islands director of tourism, said a TV ad campaign this spring heightened awareness.

"We had one of our best summers ever," he said.

The year-to-date looks good, too. The U.S.V.I. posted a 10.5% increase in air arrivals in the first seven months.

After a disappointing first quarter, Curacao tourism officials brainstormed with several wholesalers and came up with an "aggressive" co-op campaign, according to Ygmar Wiel, tourism director for North America.

"Since May, our numbers are up. We hope to end slightly over '99," he said.

Islands in the hurricane belt remain wary.

Weather issues dominate bookings, particularly from August through October.

Youngman said that "travel is conditioned by weather. What looks good one minute can change in an instant when a tropical storm develops."

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