Caribbean Marketplace

New and noteworthy from the Caribbean Marketplace

By: Kevin Brass

Despite the “halo effect” of hurricanes and world turmoil, tourism to the Caribbean was up in 2005, according to officials gathered for the annual Caribbean Marketplace, Jan. 15-18 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“International airline traffic actually grew 8 percent, against all odds,” said Caribbean Hotel Association president Berthia Parle.

The event which attracted 1,440 delegates, down slightly from 2005 was a coming-out party of sorts for the new 580,000-square-foot San Juan Convention Center, which opened in November as the largest of its kind in the Caribbean. It also marked the first Marketplace since the Caribbean Hotel Association and Caribbean Tourism Organization agreed last year to work together.

“There is a recognition of the need to promote the Caribbean,” said Alec Sanguinetti, director general of the CHA. “One of the first areas was to minimize areas of duplication, so we’re not directing funds at similar programs.”

In other news from the Marketplace: The Ritz Carlton in Cancun will remain closed until at least April, company executives said. In the wake of Hurricane Wilma, the Kukulcan Boulevard staple is going through a complete renovation. Ritz is also moving forward with Molasses Reef, a 125-room boutique resort on the uninhabited island of West Caicos, expected to open in 2007. Perhaps more shocking Ritz announced that coffeemakers would soon be available in some resort rooms, after years of whining from guests.

Arrivals from the U.S. to St. Martin grew by 10 percent in 2005, according to director of tourism Alex Richards. The tourism operations of St. Marteen and St. Martin are “repositioning, restructuring and reorganizing,” promising a new era of cooperation, he said. Meanwhile a $90 million overhaul of the airport in St. Marteen is expected to be completed by the second half of 2006. Although nothing is official yet, Richards said Four Seasons is expected to take over La Belle Creole, a closed resort on the tip of a 25-acre peninsula in French St. Martin, and there is a new 310-room Westin in the works.

Infused with the spirit of its new celebrity clientele, ranging from Bill Clinton to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the Dominican Republic is starting to evolve into a high-class destination, according to vice minister of tourism Luis Simo.

“Traditionally we have been a destination of all-inclusive hotels, but as of today that is changing,” Simo said.

He expects the Dominican Republic to add another 15,000 hotels by 2008, including several high-end projects.

“The Dominican Republic has evolved from a European destination into more of a North American destination,” he said.

According to Simo, the number of tourists to the Dominican Republic was up 8 percent in 2005.

In the wake of the official cessation of sugar production, St. Kitt is launching a new pro-tourism campaign, based on an eight-point plan to promote the island. High on the list is developing the bed and breakfast and small hotel market, according to Ricky Skerritt from St. Kitt’s ministry of tourism. Premier Resort’s Le Valle is now scheduled to open at the end of the first quarter, three months behind schedule.

LXR Luxury Resorts, the Blackstone Real Estate Group subsidiary that bought up the Wyndham International chain last year, announced plans to spend $50 million on a renovation of the Condado Plaza in San Juan and installed former Caribe Hilton chief Raul Bustamante as the new managing director.

Martinique and St. Barth’s are new targets for Travel Impressions, which is also bulking up its commitment to lesser known Guadeloupe. Part of the French Antilles, Guadeloupe is a wonderful cultural destination, CEO Steve Gorga said. The tour operator will offer eight properties on Martinique and seven on St. Barth’s.

Superclubs CEO John Issa cited Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic as the hot Caribbean markets. Superclubs is wading into the premium wedding competition with the Wedding Bliss Collection, themed packages available at the Grand Lido Resorts. The chain is also offering travel agent clients a $150 to $350 per room spa credit at Grand Lidos.

Caribbean hotels participating in the Caribbean Hotel Association Reservation Marketing Service (CHARMS) posted an aggregate revenue increase of 143.4 percent and 70.7 percent increase in average daily rates in 2005, the CHA announced.

Bonaire is expanding its annual dive festival, scheduled this year for June 17-24. Now dubbed Dive into Adventure Bonaire 2006, the event will be expanded to include kayaking, mountain-biking, windsurfing and kiteboarding, as well as a wide array of diving-related activities.

Best line from the Marketplace: “As you know, Aruba’s name recognition has never been higher,” said Aruba Hotel and Tourism president Jorge Pesquera at a press conference called to discuss the much-publicized disappearance on Aruba of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway. The press conference featured a presentation by Steve Cohen, a former CBS executive hired by the government to handle crisis management.