Travel Weekly's Caribbean E-Letter: January 23, 2003

DELEGATES to Caribbean Marketplace 2003, held Jan. 19 to 21 in San Juan, were more optimistic than a year ago at the state of the region's tourism industry. Despite reports that advance bookings for the next 60 days are down 15%, even with most hotel rates discounted by 25%, many hoteliers said January bookings were above expectations, and some expected sellout weeks in February. Alec Sanguinetti, director general of the Caribbean Hotel Assn., reported that "growth was flat in 2002, and it now appears that any permanent recovery will not take until late this year or next." The annual buyer-seller conference drew 1,826 delegates, slightly more than last year.

IN THE EVENT of a Middle East conflict, most hoteliers agreed that all bets are off regarding the duration and pace of any marketplace recovery. Richard Cortese, regional vice president for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts in the Caribbean, said that most local hoteliers have not formulated game plans or drafted contingency marketing plans. He said that if war does happen, Wyndham "would shift our focus from affluent leisure travel to the corporate business traveler."

LIFE NEEDS THE CARIBBEAN, the $16 million regional marketing TV campaign will resume Jan. 31 and will run through March, according to Ralph Taylor, chairman of the Caribbean Hotel Assn. Ads airing in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington will tout bookings through www.gocaribbean.com -- with a travel agent component linked to Expedia -- and (888) CARIBBEAN.

FUNDS to support the campaign come from both the public and private sectors, with each group contributing $8 million. However, Taylor said that only $9 million of the total $16 million in funding has been raised to date. Eighteen destinations currently participate in the campaign: Antigua and Barbuda; Aruba; Bahamas; Barbados; Belize; Bermuda; Dominica; Grenada; Guyana; Jamaica; Montserrat; St. Kitts and Nevis; St. Lucia; St. Maarten; St. Vincent and the Grenadines; Trinidad and Tobago; Turks and Caicos; and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Notably absent are the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, but Taylor said funding negotiations were still under way with both destinations.

RAFAEL Subervi Bonilla, tourism minister for the Dominican Republic, reported that Punta Cana was "exceeding all expectations for visitors. We have signed charter agreements with many operators for additional flights from U.S. gateways this summer and fall." Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic will shortly launch a $20 million advertising and promotional campaign in the U.S., targeting the destination's attractions, infrastructure, variety of resorts, sports and ease of access.

IN OTHER MARKETPLACE NEWS:
• Hilton Caribbean, a division of Hilton Int'l and Dominican Republic-based Coral Hotels and Resorts will launch their inclusive Coral by Hilton brand Feb. 1 with four properties in the Dominican Republic operated by Coral. The launch represents Hilton Caribbean's entry into the inclusive resort market. The Coral by Hilton properties are: Coral Canoa Beach Resort & Spa, Bayahibe/La Romana; Coral Costa Caribe Beach Resort & Casino, Juan Dolio; Coral Hamaca Beach Resort & Casino, Boca Chica; and Coral Marien Beach Resort & Spa, Puerto Plata. Also included is the new Guavaberry Golf & Country Club in Juan Dolio. Reservations can be made after Feb. 1 through www.hiltoncaribbean.com or www.coralhotels.com.
• Wyndham said first-quarter results for its Puerto Rico properties would show business up 33% over the same period last year and 20% first-quarter 2000 results. The hotel firm is now the largest owner/operator in the Caribbean with a room inventory of more than 4,400 rooms in Puerto Rico alone and a total of 11 resorts on six islands. In other Wyndham news, the firm spent more than $20 million on renovations in the past six months and plans to launch a pro-active travel agent incentive program later this winter.
• Joey Issa, executive vp of SuperClubs, said that 2002 "had been a long and tumultuous year, but this year promises better results" with "cold weather up North and pent up demand for travel" pushing bookings this winter. The firm's new Breezes Punta Cana Beach Resort, Spa & Casino, which opened in December in the Dominican Republic, is sold out through February. Its Breezes Puerto Plata Beach Resort & Spa, which opened this month in the Dominican Republic, also is off to a running start. Meanwhile, SuperClubs will open two new resort properties in Cuba this year and next, the 307-room Breezes Cayo Coco this year and the 430-room Grand Lido Veradaro in July 2004. In addition, the firm plans to start construction late next year on a Breezes resort in St. Kitts, with an opening projected for 2006.
• The 260-room Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort, formerly the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, opened Jan. 7 after a four-year closure. A four-month renovation and conversion project featured a "total redo of the property," according to Luis R. Rivera, general manager. The beachfront resort pays 20% commission through April 30 on introductory rates of $195 per room, double, including buffet breakfast. The resort is listed on Marriott's Web site although it will maintain its own site at www.sjcourtyard.com shortly.
• The St. Kitts Marriott Royal Resort plans a soft opening of 200 of its 471 rooms on Feb. 22 with a full opening following in May. Seven holes of the 18-hole golf course will open next month as well, along with three of eight restaurants. The 30,000-square-foot Royal Beach Casino also will open in February with 403 slot machines and 37 gaming tables. Introductory nightly rates at the resort, in effect through Dec. 15, start at $99 per room, double.

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