Island turns to promotions to attract more visitors

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HAMILTON, Bermuda -- As the short Bermuda season comes to an end, hotel and tourist officials are offering companion air fare credits to entice visitors to the pink beaches and windswept golf courses of this Atlantic island. Free hotel nights and discounts on greens fees also are planned.

Hotel occupancy rates in August and September were not as robust as hoteliers had hoped, and visitor estimates through February are also down. Some place part of the blame on the flurry of hurricanes this year in North America.

I am really disappointed that the September numbers are lower than in the past, and I think some of this is due to the total misunderstanding of hurricanes, said Michael Winfield, president of the Bermuda Hotel Association and president of Cambridge Beaches resort.

Arrivals, occupancy rate down

Unfortunately, todays weather media, when discussing the positions of hurricanes, always positions them against Bermuda whenever they turn north of the Bahamas, he added. In reality, we have very few hurricanes, and September is a gorgeous month.

But he and other officials acknowledged hurricanes arent the only reason the island, located 640 miles off the coast of North Carolina, has attracted fewer visitors this fall.

The number of visitors to Bermuda has been sliding since 1980, when more than 491,000 people arrived by air. This compares to about 272,000 air arrivals in 2004. Though cruise-ship visitors to Bermuda have increased in recent years, neither their numbers nor the cash cruisers leave behind has made up for the slump in air passengers.

The hospitality industry had been hoping to see a significant boost in visitors in 2005 after suffering steep declines following 9/11 and after Hurricane Fabian lashed the island in the fall of 2003.

The first half of this year showed promise. Visitor number were up 12% in the first quarter and nearly 6% in the second quarter over the same periods in 2004, according to the tourism and transport department.

Hotel occupancy rates, though healthy at 76% in the second quarter, declined to 70% in August and were expected to be in the 50% to 60% range when September numbers come in. Hoteliers said a successful year requires occupancy rates around 85% in May through October.

Tourism is tough everywhere, said Winfield. But most of us in the tourism industry in Bermuda are concerned.

They dont want to see a rerun of the mid-1990s, when several of its large hotels permanently shut their doors. 

One of the biggest problems facing the island is expensive air fare. Efforts by the tourism department have brought a discount carrier into the market during the summer months. But more and cheaper flights are needed.

A flight to Bermuda generally costs more on a per-mile basis than almost anywhere else in the world, said Winfield.

Though the island is less than a two-hour flight from the East Coast, a plane ticket there can cost more than a flight to Europe. Plus, flights from Europe to Bermuda frequently are more expensive than entire vacation packages to islands in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

In addition to seeking more flights and lower air fares, tourism officials are trying to enhance the islands exclusive-vacation-spot image into a welcoming one that will appeal to more travelers.

Promoting golf season

Bermuda has allowed its brand, its image in the marketplace, to become fuzzy, Winfield said. We have failed to separate us from the herd of other islands and to explain just how different, how special we are.

Winfield said the hotel association is working with the tourism and transport department to come up with more enticing promotions for North American travelers.

Weve got some major promotions in the works, including air credit to travelers booking three and four nights, he said.  The program, Compliments of Bermuda, offers a $300 credit on a companions air fare to the island Nov. 1 to April 18 (the golf and spa season) for a minimum three-night hotel stay. (Bookings must be made by Feb. 28.)

Winfield said hotel partners likely will include most major resorts. Free hotel nights and discounts on greens fees also are planned.

For more information, call (800) 237-6832 or visit www.bermudatourism.com or the hotel associations site at www.experiencebermuda.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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