CASTRIES, St. Lucia -- Buoyed by a strong winter market and a peak season that shows little sign of petering out before July, tourism officials are optimistic that St. Lucia will break the 100,000 U.S. visitor mark this year.

Peter Hilary Modeste, director of tourism, said U.S. arrivals were up 7% in February and 6% in March over the same months last year, and "the hotels were chockablock in April."

"Hoteliers report strong bookings through July," he said.

The numbers reveal that first-quarter occupancies increased each month in the all-inclusive resorts, ranging from 76.6% in January (up from 64.9% in January 2003) to 91.7% in February (up from 78.3% in February 2003) and 82.7% in March (up from 76% in March 2003).

First-quarter occupancy figures decreased slightly for conventional hotels and rose a modest amount for small properties (under 75 rooms).

Although final April figures were not yet in, Modeste said he expects May to be "a bumper month for St. Lucia."

"The nine-day jazz festival, which runs through May 16, and a series of important cricket matches between teams from the West Indies and England will fill our hotels," he said.

A gradual shift in the length of the peak season could account for the spread in bookings, Modeste said.

"Whereas April traditionally marked the end of the peak season, we are now seeing that trend continue to July," he said.

St. Lucia's focus and emphasis on the wedding and honeymoon markets "may account for this shift in booking patterns," Modeste said.

The director also credited the April launch of Delta's twice-weekly service from Atlanta as providing easier access to St. Lucia from the Midwest and West Coast. Delta also has a code-share agreement with Air Jamaica.

Modeste said that tourism officials, who set "certain targets for U.S. markets this year," would evaluate 2004 in comparison with 2000.

"The best way to judge this year and last year is to measure those two years against the 10 consecutive years of increased arrivals through 2000," he said.

In comparing last year with 2002, St. Lucia saw a 9.3% increase in arrivals for 2003, including a 4.3% increase from the U.S.

The tourism director looks forward to the Nov. 4 start-up of American's year-round daily service from Miami and said tourism officials are "optimistic about the U.S. market, both from the airlift picture and from the hotel angle. We see improvements in our major markets."

Upcoming events that could help boost arrival figures include Fisherman's Feast, June 19; Kids' Summer Safari, a monthlong event in July; Emancipation Day and National Heroes Day, Aug. 1; and Creole Heritage Month in October.

For information on events, visit www.stlucia.org or call (888) 4-STLUCIA.

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

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