Caribbean islands slammed with double financial hit

"Our advance bookings are 15% below where we think they ought to be," Air Jamaica CEO Bruce Nobles says. The airline handles about half of Jamaica's tourists.

•Boost marketing. Large properties from Atlantis to Sandals took out ads on CNN and other national cable channels to boost visibility. Jamaica passed a tourism rescue package that boosted advertising dollars by $5 million, or about 20%, says John Lynch, chairman of the Jamaica Tourist Board. The board is posting Jamaica signs atop 400 cabs in New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia. Last week, St. Lucia OK'd a $7 million marketing boost. And the Bahamas started a $12 million campaign.

Normally competitors, Caribbean tourism leaders are now discussing a united marketing campaign. They need one to help against Mexico's Riviera Maya, which has stolen market share by offering travelers a similar mix of sun, sand, sea, foreign culture and new resorts — often at lower prices, says hospitality consultant Parris Jordan of HVS.

Besides luring bargain seekers, the Riviera Maya region is targeting the wealthy, says travel agent Yale. A Mandarin Oriental opened a year ago near Mayan ruins and the Cancun airport. "People who used to thumb their noses at Mexico because they only go to Barbados are now saying, 'If I can get a better fare, maybe I'll go there,' " Yale says.

Airlines this month scheduled 12% more non-stop seats between the Lower 48 and Cancun vs. last year.

Much at stake

The stakes to salvage 2009 are especially high for the Caribbean, says Paul Cashin, Caribbean division chief for the International Monetary Fund. Countries such as Antigua and Barbados rely on tourism for about half their GDP, while it accounts for about 25% for others, such as the Dominican Republic and Grenada.

The downturn could prove especially devastating for countries such as Dominica, which has a fragile economy and a more fragile tourism industry.

In the last decade, Dominica — with volcanic peaks that disappear into the clouds and jaw-dropping waterfalls — has tried to sell itself to nature lovers and cruise ship passengers. But it lacks frequent air service and hotel chains that promote destinations. Now, tourism has slowed to the point where street vendors are panicking, says Norris Prevost, a Dominica Parliament member, who recently spoke with a group of women who feed their families by braiding tourists' hair for $2 apiece.

"They were frantic. It was about 2 p.m., and business was just dead," Prevost says. "The taxi people are complaining, too. Tourists are spending no money. This is really traumatic."

Caribbean tourism leaders hope that the discounts and other strategies could improve tourism, but it's not clear by how much or when.

Entrepreneurs Tellis and Sylvia Curry, who own a conch stand in Potter's Cay in Nassau, say that in the last several weeks they've had more Canadian tourists than usual, but fewer U.S. tourists. Sylvia Curry, a Boston native, says, "I'd think the bad weather would push people here."

That may happen, says Vanderpool-Wallace, the Bahamas' tourism minister. His country is noticing more last-minute bookings, especially for breaks such as Presidents Day weekend, as the Northeastern U.S. freezes over. Through March, "We are not as far behind," he says.

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