PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad -- With the annual Carnival celebrations rocking the streets and villages of Trinidad and Tobago this week, the dual island nation makes a push for heavy destination promotion and marketing, according to tourism officials here.

"With the airlift increase in the past year, coupled with a growth in the U.S. market, a new emphasis on community festivals and events, a rebranding of our tour product and a mandate to promote the Trinidad and Tobago brand, we're hopeful that our tourism industry can come from behind," said Brian Charles, vice president, marketing for Tourism and Industrial Development Co., the national promotion agency for Trinidad and Tobago.

New airlift includes Continental's launch in mid-December of twice-weekly, year-round service from Newark to Port-of-Spain, BWIA's service between Washington and Tobago and the connecting service to Tobago from New York's Kennedy-Trinidad flight.

Charles said that Howard Chin Lee, who was recently appointed tourism minister to replace Pennelope Beckles, "wants to focus on what sets us apart from other Caribbean nations, such as our festivals, music and range of activities from goat races to culinary competitions and our nature heritage."

Worldwide visitor arrivals in 2003 increased to 400,000, up from 383,000 in 2002. Increases of 8% are being registered this winter over last, with more than 35% of all visitors coming from the U.S.

Charles said that agents account for approximately 60% of that business. "We're seeing a tourism growth in the U.S. market as American agents and their clients recognize that Trinidad and Tobago is not just an oil and energy producer."

Although he admitted that "tourism is a bit behind, we are confident that we are on the right track now with the new emphasis on culture, cuisine and celebrations such as Carnival," Charles said. "We know that our visitors want a bit more than the traditional sun-and-sand vacation."

Hotel development also is on the move. A Courtyard by Marriott property will open in Port-of-Spain this summer; a new project is in the works for Trinidad's north coast, and property renovations are taking place in Tobago.

The Tobago Hilton, which opened two years ago, is gaining market share and higher occupancies, Charles said.

Hotel rooms on both islands number approximately 5,000, according to Charles.

Charles said that cruise traffic "has fallen off a bit" to two ships per week in the winter season. Port-of-Spain's cruise terminal can handle up to two mega-class ships at a time.

"We recognize that we need to revamp our cruise product and offer more and varied tour packages for cruise visitors," he said.

Also planned are more fam trips for agents "to broaden their awareness of the destination," the implementation of an agent specialist program and a more focused development of the scuba, ecotourism and family markets, according to Charles.

Festivals will continue to play important roles in tourism marketing. "The larger events will be packaged with hotel and tour programs," Charles said. "For example, the International Gospel Festival June 4 to 6 in Trinidad will offer easy-to-book, commissionable packages." He said that details on the festival will be released next month.

For information on the destination, visit www.visitTNT.com. The Web site details attractions, lodging, events and contacts.

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

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