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Caribbean touts tourism surge not seen since '08

The Caribbean is attracting tourists in numbers not seen since the start of the global economic crisis, with several islands boasting new records, government officials said Friday.

More than 23 million tourists visited the region in 2010, a nearly 5 percent increase from the 22.1 million that visited the previous year, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

The tiny eastern Caribbean islands of Anguilla and St. Lucia drew hordes of tourists from Canada and the U.S and posted double-digit increases. St. Eustatius, a speck of an island that was previously part of the Netherlands Antilles, got a big boost from European visitors.

The Dominican Republic for the first time surpassed 4 million visitors, according to the Ministry of Tourism, while St. Lucia also reported a record 330,000 visitors.

The Bahamas and Jamaica, meanwhile, were among the top eight most requested countries last year, according to a recent quarterly review by Tripology.com, an online travel referral service that caters mostly to U.S. travelers. The Caribbean also was the second most requested destination last year following the U.S., according to the web site, which arranges travel to requested destinations.

While the Bahamas reported a record number of visitors — more than 5 million — the amount they spent is nowhere near what tourists spent in 2008 prior to the economic crisis, said Tourism Minister Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace.

"We have to get there before we begin to celebrate," he said.

The jump in tourists came mostly from cruise ship passengers who spend very little compared with those who stay in the Bahamas. This was the case even though 70 percent of the islands' cruise ship passengers last year were on a Bahamas-only cruise, Vanderpool-Wallace said.

Cruise ship arrivals also increased elsewhere, with a 50 percent jump for the French Caribbean island of Martinique, 20 percent for Bermuda and nearly 18 percent for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Jamaica hopes to capture even more of that market with next month's opening of a two-berth cruise port in the north coast town of Falmouth.

The island also unveiled new hotels, a new convention center and a new international airport named after Ian Fleming, creator of stylish spy James Bond. It also plans to target the South American and Eastern European markets this year, especially Brazil and Russia, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett said.

"A whole new architecture is being crafted for tourism globally and in the region," he said. "Jamaica responded quickly to refashion itself, to refurbish its products."

In St. Lucia, developers opened several hotels last year that cater to well-heeled tourists, many of whom spent heavily, increasing revenue by 30 percent for a total of $519 million, Tourism Minister Allen Chastanet said.

The island also was touted on the U.S. TV show "The Bachelor," which helped attract more tourists, he said.

"We've had a really fantastic year," he said.

The majority of Caribbean tourists who arrived last year came from the U.S. and Canada, with officials blaming a drop in European tourists on a significant air passenger duty that Britain approved in 2009 and increased last year.

Despite the overall jump in tourism across the region, Josef Forstmayr, president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Organization, noted that the hotel sector posted just a 1 percent rise in occupancy last year despite a drop in rates.

"It will take us a few more years to get us back to where we were in 2007," he said. "It's a big concern for us. The hotel industry was not highly profitable to start off with."

Forstmayr said the organization also is trying to improve transportation between islands and remove fees and some visa requirements to further boost tourism.

The new year "should see us in an upward trend," he said.

(This version CORRECTS the first name of St. Lucia's tourism minister to 'Allen', instead of 'Alan')