The Caribbean looks back on the year of the passport rebate

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Caribbean travel interests are heading into the winter season with a lot less anxiety than they felt a year ago, when confusion over the U.S. government's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative loomed like a rain cloud, threatening to put a damper on the whole season.

Hugh Riley, director of the Caribbean Tourism Development Co., a joint venture between the Caribbean Tourism Organization and the Caribbean Hotel Association, said "the negative effects of the passport issue have somewhat subsided."

"Prospective travelers have made their decisions about how they would handle the cost, inconvenience and delay factors involved," Riley said. "The number of Americans possessing passports has continued to increase at a steady pace, and the Caribbean continues to be a great value in the current environment."

Part of the reason for the improved outlook is that Caribbean interests had several educational and promotional initiatives in place, including rebates designed to offset the cost of acquiring a passport.

For the most part, they worked.

Under the WHTI, U.S. citizens traveling by air to and from foreign points in the Western Hemisphere must present a valid passport to leave and re-enter the country. The rule went into effect for air travel in January and is expected to be extended to cruise passengers and land travelers in mid-2008.

It seemed simple enough, but program delays and frequent changes to the deadlines, coupled with a mounting backlog of passport applications, led to public confusion and angst about Caribbean travel.

Destinations and hotels responded with promotions that offered rebates, discounts or coupons for local merchants designed to offset the traveler's cost of acquiring a passport. Some offers saved $400 for a family of four. Some hotels promised food and beverage credits, free spa treatments and free rounds of golf.

The Nassau/Paradise Island Promotion Board was the first to launch a destination-wide promotion, and it helped spur an increase in arrivals, according to Kim Andersen, vice president of marketing.

The promotion, which was a mix of educational information and rebates, launched last December with a rebate offer and an educational microsite where travelers could find step-by-step instructions on entry requirements, even the location of the nearest U.S. passport office.

"To date, we've rebated close to 10,000 passports and have definitely met our goals on educating travelers on the new regulations," Andersen said.

Last spring, when the backlog on passports was nearing the 12-week mark, the NPIPB extended and expanded its program by offering to cover the cost for expediting passports as well as for reimbursing the fees for new and renewed passports.

More than 19 properties participated in the rebate program; many other hotels in the Bahamas offered their own incentives.

St. Maarten offered $100 in coupons for use at restaurants and other local businesses.

"The promotion did help us through the passport scare, but it was not overwhelmingly successful in terms of generating new business," said Robert Dubourcq, executive product manager for the St. Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association.

"We don't plan on continuing the program in 2008," he said.

In Aruba, U.S. arrivals increased by more than 6% in January and February and by more than 10% in March. Myrna Jansen, managing director of the Aruba Tourism Authority, attributed the gains to incentive programs and awareness campaigns.

"These initiatives were extremely effective in getting visitors to Aruba who may not have had or used their passports during previous visits," Jansen said.

SuperClubs' Passport Included program reimbursed passport fees up to $97 per person for any  booking of at least four nights.

The program was promoted in national newspapers, online, on TV and on radio, according to Zein Nakash, vice president of marketing and environmental affairs.

"More than 4,400 travelers booked vacations with SuperClubs as a direct result of the Passport Included promotion -- and the overwhelming majority of travelers required a new passport," Nakash said.

The Passport Included promotion is valid for travel through 2008 for bookings made by Dec. 31 of this year.

At Sandals and Beaches Resorts, a Passport to Paradise promotion began a year ago and was updated last May with an increase in its resort credit from $60 per passport to $125 per passport. The company issued resort credits for more than 2,000 bookings in 2007, according to CEO Adam Stewart.

"The passport law put undue burden on hoteliers, but this has significantly improved as time has passed and the process for Americans to obtain passports has become more efficient," Stewart said.    

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

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