BASSETERRE, St. Kitts -- The discoveries of three shipwrecks near here dating from the 1760s could signal a new emphasis on underwater attractions and heritage sites for visitors to St. Kitts.

Dwyer Astaphan, minister of tourism, said the discovery of three British naval vessels this spring signaled the first phase of a project " that will look at a number of wreck sites off St. Kitts."

Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts.Astaphan estimated there are more than 1,000 shipwrecks in and around the island.

"We have put together a five-year plan to develop, document and display the story of St. Kitts history. This discovery resuscitated interest in our land and marine heritage sites and signals enormous new tourism potential," he said.

St. Kitts is moving forward on a number of other fronts, as well.

The 648-room St. Kitts Marriott Royal Beach Resort, which opened in February, "has created a lot of new interest in the destination," Astaphan said. The hotel will host the fifth annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development Sept. 9 to 12.

Caribbean Star Airlines relocated its headquarters to St. Kitts from Antigua on June 1; sister carrier Caribbean Sun, which began serving St. Kitts from San Juan this spring with three flights a day, also opened administrative offices on St. Kitts.

Other developments include:

• The Port Zante cruise ship pier and marina is set to complete an expansion program in August that will include a new welcome center.

The addition of a second cruise pier that can accommodate two megaships is set for mid-2004.

• Universal Airlines, a small, scheduled carrier based in New York with 767 service from New York's Kennedy to Trinidad and Guyana, added nonstop, year-round Saturday service to St. Kitts on June 24.

Introductory fares are $450; packages are offered through several operators, including Alken Tours. Commissions run from $25 to $35 per booking.

• Astaphan described US Airways' nonstop Saturday service from Philadelphia as "highly successful"; the tourism authority also is seeking a weekly flight from Charlotte, N.C., next winter, he said.

Other airlift to St. Kitts includes twice-weekly Delta flights from Atlanta in peak season and Air Jamaica connecting flights through Montego Bay, Jamaica.

• The St. Kitts Tourism Authority's revamped Web site, at www.stkitts-tourism.com, soon will include virtual tours, expanded island information and a booking engine that will direct consumers to agents.

"We want to establish a deeper bond with our partner agents and operators through booking incentives, fam trips and sales blitzes," Astaphan said.

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