The addition of low-cost air has Bermuda optimistic

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Getting to Bermuda already is a short trip for travelers in the eastern U.S. Now its about to get more affordable, at least for some visitors, and thats a good thing for tourism officials here, who have been reinvigorating their efforts to boost arrivals.

In addition to courting new low-fare air service, tourism officials are using a new marketing campaign to try to broaden Bermudas appeal to a wider age group. And they spent this past fall and winter emphasizing spa, golf and romantic getaways to counter the dip in visits that usually happens in those seasons.

Bermuda tourism officials are encouraged by the recent results.

Years of wooing JetBlue have finally paid off. The low-fare carrier launches service from New York on May 4 with one-way fares starting at $129. In response, American and Continental lowered their fares for their respective services from Kennedy and Newark. As a result, by some accounts, average fares out of New York dropped by 50% or more.

USA 3000 already offers seasonal service from Baltimore, and Bermuda officials keep trying to convince Spirit to launch service from at least one of its gateways. (JetBlues new service, however, has scared Spirit away from a plan to launch service from New York, at least for now.)

Low-fare service is a big deal for Bermuda. Tourism here has been hampered, in part, by air fares higher than those available from the East Coast to destinations such as the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Air arrivals to Bermuda, which had peaked at 491,000 people in 1980, declined to about 270,000 by 2005. Tourism officials are aiming to increase that figure to 400,000 in three years.

It is my belief that in 2006 we will eliminate higher air fares as a barrier, Bermuda Tourism and Transport Minister Ewart Brown predicted recently.

That might be too optimistic. But having at least some lower fares will help Bermudas new Feel the Love marketing campaign, which promotes its people, service and safety, and has been stylized to try to appeal to a broader segment of the public.

Don Coleman, chairman and CEO of the GlobalHue advertising agency that Bermuda hired for its North America campaign, said the agency is aiming to lower the average age of Bermudas target consumer, which historically has been about 50 to 55.

The new target is the urbane traveler, which Coleman described as 35- to 45-year-old experienced travelers who are upwardly mobile, tech-savvy and modern. Southfield, Mich.-based GlobalHue, known for its multicultural campaigns, also is reaching out to the African-American market.

The campaign is focusing on markets that offer nonstop flights to Bermuda, such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

With Bermuda so close to the eastern U.S. (about 640 miles off the coast of North Carolina) and with some lower fares, Bermudas campaign is promoting not just weeklong trips but also long weekends. Research has shown that many potential customers dont know how close Bermuda is, Coleman said. Many think it is in the Caribbean.

The campaign is trying to correct that notion with ads such as one in New York that asks residents: Why spend several hours in a car trying to get to the Hamptons when you can be on an island in Bermuda in two?

Bermuda also has been making a big push to increase tourism in fall and winter, which its tourism officials now refuse to call the off-season. Instead, Bermuda calls it the golf and spa season. Bermuda has eight golf courses and stays green year-round. It also has eight spas it describes as world-class.

This past winter, Bermuda added a third element to the mix: romance. Bermudas first International Love Festival was hosted by the Fairmont Southampton Feb. 16 to 20. It used Valentines Day as its hook and opened with a champagne-and-chocolates reception in a pink-lit room with cloth-draped chairs and two beds (for decoration, not use) bathed in pink light.

The Gospel Brunch and Love Commitment Ceremony at the events close was a nice touch and included a top-notch buffet, but it may have gotten a bit too preachy if the event means to be inclusive.

To contact reporter Andrew Compart, send e-mail to [email protected].

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