|By Doreen Hemlock, South Florida Sun-Sentinel|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 28, 2005 - The Caribbean expects record tourism for the second straight year in 2005, despite high oil prices, setbacks from hurricanes and rising competition from other world areas.
But the world's most tourism-dependent region needs to prepare now for future downturns in the business cycle: boosting Caribbean-wide marketing in the United States and Europe and strengthening its regional airlines.
Those were among the conclusions Monday at the first day of full talks at the annual Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference, conducted for the first time outside the island region and in downtown Miami.
More than 1,000 people are attending the event that kicked off Sunday with a speech by environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and ends Wednesday night with a culinary contest between teams from Caribbean nations and a gala awards dinner.
South Florida rolled out the red carpet for the event, happy to receive its direct economic gains, to rub elbows with honchos in the travel industry and to underscore South Florida's role as a business gateway to the Caribbean for planes, cruises and shopping.
Caribbean Hotel Association President Berthia Parle summed up the mood in the region's tourism industry as "unequivocal optimism."
She and fellow hoteliers cited a 7.8 percent jump to a record 21.9 million stay-over arrivals last year, plus forecasts of $8.5 billion in new tourism investment this year.
Spurring the growth: a robust world economy, a strong euro and pound sterling that make trips relatively cheaper for European visitors, a weak U.S. dollar that keeps Americans away from Europe and closer to home, plus new resorts that are enticing vacationers.
Yet problems remain, from growing strains on roadways and shorelines to social tensions in some nations where tourism's riches have been inadequately channeled to help the poor or to negative stereotypes of the role of travel, the world's largest industry.
"Traditionally in the Caribbean people would see service as servitude," lamented Brenda Hood, Grenada's minister of tourism, urging greater outreach to raise public awareness that hospitality offers wide-ranging professional opportunities and sustains the islands.
But positive news prevailed, as exemplified by the $100 million expansion under way by the Barbados-based Almond Resorts, a chain of all-inclusive hotels. The group, which now operates two hotels in Barbados with 515 rooms, just bought two existing properties in Barbados and St. Lucia and expects to expand the group to 1,300 rooms by 2007.
The chain also hopes to add another hotel every 12 to 18 months after 2007 for at least the next several years, said Ralph Taylor, Almond's chief executive and former president of the Puerto Rico-based Caribbean Hotel Association.
Even Grenada, the nation devastated by Hurricane Ivan last summer, with about 90 percent of homes suffering structural damage, reported solid progress. More than 60 percent of the island's roughly 1,700 hotel rooms already have reopened. And at least 80 percent of the total should be ready for business by the end of this year, said Naline Ramdeen-Joseph, marketing manager for the Grenada Board of Tourism.
"Grenada is back in action," said Ramdeen-Joseph, crediting a mix of insurance money, foreign loans, local tax breaks and cash sent back by Grenadians abroad for the recovery. "And our people are understanding more than ever the importance of tourism."
The four-day conference focuses on ways to improve tourism in the Caribbean, an industry that provides about one in six jobs in the region and 15 percent of the area's economy, representing more than $40 billion in annual economic activity, according to studies by the World Travel and Tourism Council, a private group based in London.
Sessions today will examines such themes as Internet marketing and franchising. Caribbean Hotel Association Parle said her group plans to conduct next year's conference at the Hyatt Regency in Miami again, thanks to South Florida support.
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