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Tourism's Up In Caribbean


January 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Tourism is making a slow comeback across the Caribbean.

The number of tourists visiting the region is significantly higher for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks left beach resorts looking more like ghost towns as fearful travelers opted for vacations that didn't require air travel.

The Dominican Republic reports an increase of 33.5 percent in the number of visitors last year, compared with that of 2001. Other top destinations in the region also reported increases, even as the volume of visitors remains lower than pre-9/11 events.

''We have certainly seen recovery of business in the summer and increasing in the winter,'' said Jean Holder, secretary general for the Caribbean Tourism Organization in Barbados. ``We've seen an increase over the last year and even small increases over the year before. Any time our numbers rise, we have to applaud that particular situation and build upon it.''

Even though the apparent tourism recovery is viewed as a bright spot for an ailing economy, the prognosis remains bleak because of instability elsewhere, including the continuing oil strike in Venezuela and looming war with Iraq.

''At the end of 2002, the losses to the tourism industry [were] not nearly as devastating as they thought it would be. There is a gradual return of consumer confidence,'' said Anthony Bryan, director of the Caribbean Program at the University of Miami's North-South Center. ``But blips, such as war with Iraq, can shake confidence, particularly if there are any counterattacks.''

The estimated 3 percent decline in tourist arrivals in 2001 was the third recorded decline in international arrivals to the Caribbean registered since 1970, and the fourth such challenge to the regional tourism industry initiated by a major world event, according to the CTO.

The three other incidents that affected travel: the 1975 oil crisis, the 1981 global recession and the 1991 Gulf War.

But even amid lingering uncertainty, the region's top tourism destinations -- including the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico -- are cautiously optimistic about growth.

''We're getting back to normal levels before 9/11. We're still not there, but it's getting better,'' said José M. Suárez, executive director for Puerto's Rico tourism bureau. ``Obviously we can't control what happens with the war, but we're going to be proactive so that the effect on tourism is minimized.''

Last year, Puerto Rico slightly exceeded the 2001 occupancy rate. In 2002, an estimated 73.3 percent of hotel rooms were filled, compared with 70 percent in 2001. In 2000, the occupancy rate was 75 percent.

But the forecast remains blurry for the Caribbean.

Although the numbers are up, revenues are down in most places because of across-the-board discounts being offered to attract visitors. Hotels have been offering rooms at lower rates to lure spur-of-the-moment travelers.

''People aren't making plans ahead of time because of the uncertainty; they are booking at the last minute,'' Suárez said.

The ramifications of turmoil elsewhere could be devastating for places like Cuba and the Dominican Republic, which rely on tourism as a principal source of hard currency.

''This is a critical issue,'' said Radhamés Gómez Sánchez, a spokesman for the Dominican Republic's Central Bank. ``We are keeping our fingers crossed that the war [with Iraq] is not unleashed. Hopefully, the world will remain peaceful so that we can live.''

The Dominican Republic lost an estimated $400 million in earnings due to the drop in tourism during the year following the 9/11 tragedy, Bryan said. The monthlong oil strike in Venezuela also has produced economic hardships for other countries in the Caribbean -- including Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica, which have had to purchase oil at higher prices.

As for economic forecasts?

''Mixed results are expected in 2003,'' Bryan said. ``It's going to vary from place to place.''

In Cuba, so many travelers visited this holiday season, airlines suffered long delays because the international airport in Havana could not adequately handle the large volume of flights for travelers returning home this past weekend. Many of the flights were returning to the United States.

''The number of flights to take people out from Cuba was so large that there were not enough landing strips for all the planes,'' said Armando García, vice president of Marazul Charters, based in Miami. ''So some of the flights returned back to the place where they came from and waited until they got the clearance'' to land in Havana.

The Cuban government also recently reported an increase in the number of travelers arriving on cruise ships at ports in Havana and Santiago. As one cruise ship sailed into Havana Bay with a record 1,414 passengers, a second cruise ship docked in Santiago with 1,200 passengers.

The government said 60 vessels carrying 45,000 tourists visited the island in 2002. Twice that many are expected this year.

The cruise industry is relatively new for Cuba. The numbers of passengers for previous years were not available.

However, even with the busy holiday and increase in cruise passengers, the tourism industry in Cuba remains sluggish. A recent government report said tourism was down 5 percent in 2002 and the prognosis for an economic boost from 2003 is shaky.

''Nobody knows what is going to happen in 2003,'' said Miami economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, who tracks Cuba's economy. ``The big difference for Cuba is world stability. People don't like to be traveling when there is a war.''

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