Travel Weekly's Caribbean E-letter: July 8, 2004

THE DEPARTURE TAX for visitors leaving St. Maarten on international flights as of Sept. 1 will increase to $25 from $20; on Jan. 1, the tax will rise to $30. For domestic flights from other islands within the Netherlands Antilles (Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, St. Eustatius), the tax will jump to $10 from $7 on Jan. 1. The airport tax is included in the air ticket price. Revenues from the tax increase will be used for renovation and expansion costs at Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten, pegged at $120 million, according to government officials. By comparison, Aruba's tax will still be the highest at $36.75, followed by St. Maarten at $30 and Jamaica at $27.

THE 290-ROOM Grand Beach Palace Resort in St. Thomas will shut down indefinitely on Aug. 28 due to low occupancy rates, hotel officials said. The hotel, formerly the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, changed hands last fall when Mexico-based Palace Resorts -- a hotel firm with several holdings in Cancun -- bought the property for $9.76 million from CTF St. Thomas Corp. Palace renamed it, appointed Luis Entrala as gm and became an all-inclusive, joining St. Thomas's Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort & Spa and Bolongo Bay Beach Club in that market. Palace Resorts plans to apply for tax benefits from the Virgin Islands Economic Development Commission, which exempts qualifying properties from paying property and gross receipts taxes for 10 years. If EDC approves tax breaks for Grand Beach, a six-month, $12 million renovation program is expected to get underway. Until the outcome of the EDC application is known, when and if the resort will reopen remains unclear.

CURACAO'S NEW commissioner of economic affairs and tourism is Ivar Asjes, who replaced Renford Rojer, minister of tourism, as part of a new coalition island government that assumed power in late June. Jim Hepple remains as Curacao's director of tourism.

SANDALS RESORTS will open two additional Jamaica resorts: The 360-room Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa, which is set to debut next February on the island's unchartered south coast; and the 529-room Sandals Grande Ocho Rios Beach & Villa Resort, opening in December as Sandals' largest property. In addition, a $25 million development plan at Sandals Antigua Resort & Spa calls for two new restaurants in a Mediterranean Village-themed area and 114 new rooms, of which 14 suites will have private plunge pools.

STARWOOD HOTELS, which was selected in March by the Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority to operate the new 500-room anchor hotel, will open the Sheraton San Juan Convention Center Hotel in 2007. The property will be adjacent to the 558,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center, set to open in mid-2005.

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION extended the mandatory return date for Cuban Americans visiting relatives in Cuba to July 31. The Treasure Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control had imposed a June 30 deadline in mid-June, prompting lawmakers and travel industry representatives to protest that air charter companies needed more time to inform passengers, especially in remote areas. The rule is part of a package of tougher sanctions that, among other things, caps family visits at one, two-week trip every three years.

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