NEW YORK -- St. Lucia welcomed more than 276,000 visitors last year, a record for the island, according to Phillip Pierre, minister of tourism.

The figures represent a 9.3% overall increase, with U.S. visitors up 4.3% over the prior year.

Pierre, who hosted a recent Media Marketplace in New York in recognition of St. Lucia's 25th anniversary of independence, said tourism "now accounts for more than 12% of our gross domestic product."

He attributed the rebound in visitor traffic last year, in part, to the strength of St. Lucia's ongoing private-public sector partnerships, a sentiment echoed by Michael Going, Air Jamaica's senior vice president of marketing and sales.

"Air Jamaica places high importance on our relationships with our Caribbean cousins," Going said, adding that partnering on projects to raise destination awareness remains "critical" in 2004.

"For the past few years, it has not been business as usual in the travel and tourism industry," Going said. "We must continue to build stronger alliances to ensure not only that our scheduled services remain strong but also that tourism receipts in all island nations grow."

Pierre cited two destination developments in St. Lucia as examples of "partnerships that work." These include the alliance that unites the St. Lucia Tourist Board with Air Jamaica and Black Entertainment Television (BET) to produce the 13th annual St. Lucia Jazz Festival, set for May 7 to 16.

Air Jamaica also is a producer of the Caribbean Media Exchange on Sustainable Tourism (CMEx) series; the sixth CMEx will be held in Castries from June 24 to 28.

Other developments in St. Lucia include:

• The St. Lucia Tourist Board teamed with the Travel Institute to create a travel agent specialist program that will provide information regarding the island's history, heritage, culture, attractions, water sports and activities.

Over the next three years, St. Lucia will offer incentives to those agents certified with the program, according to Hilary Modeste, director of tourism.

Sales and booking tips, a study guide, a language primer, road maps and information regarding currency, banking and shopping hours will be included. The cost of the course is $79. Details will be announced shortly.

• The St. Lucia Tourist Board, the Ministry of Tourism and the St. Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association have initiated a marketing strategy aimed at the island's small and independent hotels.

Modeste said that the INNtimate St. Lucia program is designed "to increase consumer awareness of the abundance of affordable lodging options on the island." Details can be viewed at www.inntimatestlucia.org.

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

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