|By Jacqueline Charles, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Sep. 10, 2006 - Islands seek quality over quantity
From the pearly white beaches of Anguilla to the backwaters of the Bahamas, a tourism shift is taking shape in the Caribbean.
The weary can still book mega hotels and big, luxurious, self-contained resorts, but now they can also own a piece of paradise. An increasing number of Caribbean destinations are offering visitors small, personalized stays in the form of villas, condos and boutique hotels.
'Visitors are saying, 'We've been to the large hotel; we want that intimate, personalized service in a nice, small, environment,' " Berthia Parle, former president of the Caribbean Hotel Association, said in a telephone interview from her 72-room hotel in St. Lucia.
As a result of travelers' needs for something new and different, an increasing number of islands are opting for quality over quantity, marketing themselves to more discerning visitors.
To lure them -- and distinguish themselves beyond sun and surf -- islands and hoteliers are giving visitors what they want by offering timeshare units, villas, penthouses and traditional hotel rooms as part of mixed-used developments.
"This seems to be big, big business," Parle said about mixed-used developments. "A lot of people want to own their own villa."
While the trend appears to be sweeping the region, it is especially noticeable in St. Lucia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, where the Ritz-Carlton is currently building an exclusive resort community on West Caicos. Home to a 500-acre natural wildlife sanctuary, the 6,000-acre island is the largest island in the Turks and Caicos chain and has been uninhabited for 100 years.
Along with its pink flamingoes, it will soon boast the 125-room Molasses Reef resort, along with million-dollar single-family and custom homes, cottages, marina townhomes and villas -- all being built and managed by the Ritz-Carlton.
Earlier this summer, the hotel chain successfully converted 48 of its hotel rooms to two-bedroom luxury timeshare suites in St. Thomas as part of a $40 million rebirth "to reflect the intimate charm of the resort."
"Ritz-Carlton's strategy is to develop more boutique hotels in the region, such as Molasses Reef," said Ezzat Coutry, senior vice president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. in charge of Florida, the Caribbean and Latin America. Coutry said the West Caicos project is being marketed as "bare foot elegance," with ecotourism as a hallmark.
Turks and Caicos Premier Michael Misick said the Ritz-Carlton is just one of the brand luxury names that's investing in the leisure destination, which has become a must-visit for celebrities.
"We have between $3 billion and $4 billion worth of projects coming in," he said, noting that a nearby cay will also feature Tahiti-themed, over-the-water bungalows at a soon-to-be-built resort.
Unlike next-door neighbor the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos is small and cannot handle large volumes of tourists, Misick said. Then again, it's not really interested in marketing itself as a mass tourist destination, he said.
"We don't apologize about that," Misick said. "We are not interested in quantity, we are interested in quality. If you can't afford it, the Turks and Caicos is not for you. That may sound snobbish, but we've made a strategic decision to pursue up-market tourism."
It's not to say that there isn't anywhere left for those on a budget to enjoy a Caribbean vacation, even if they can't afford a timeshare or a million-dollar penthouse. Jamaica, which is credited with being the trailblazer in the boutique hotel business before moving toward mass tourism, is still building "mega, mega resorts," said Parle, the former hotel association president.
"We call it the Spanish invasion," she quipped, referring to the recent investment by several Spain-based companies in the Jamaican hotel market.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald
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