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January 27, 2009
  • New terminal at PUJ
  • Messages of authenticity prevail
  • Ritz Carlton commitment in DR firm
  • Interval International wants more condo property
  • Intra-Caribbean tax is barrier to travel
New terminal at PUJ
President Leonel Fernandez was present for last week's inaugural of the new terminal at the Punta Cana International Airport. The airport now has capacity to handle 2.7 million passengers. At the inaugural, Frank Rainieri, president of the Puntacana Group, owner of the airport, stressed that the present global financial crisis is also "a time for opportunities." He announced company plans to add a second 3,200 meters long runway to the airport and a new control tower. As part of continuing airport expansion, plans are for the completion of a third terminal at the airport by 2010. Last year 1.5 million tourists used the PUJ facility.
Messages of authenticity prevail
Authenticity is the name of the game in the Caribbean, as island states begin to push their individual identities. During the celebration of Caribbean Marketplace, last week in St. Lucia, island government authorities announced a new branding. Building upon the tourism tagline of "Simply Beautiful," the Prime Minister, Ministry of Tourism and St. Lucia Hotel & Tourism Association launched a new country brand and logo with the colors of the flag at the leading Caribbean hotel booking event. "People, land and the light," will be the new message behind the 2009 brand that is part of a national vision plan where tourism is a major component.
“What is most important is to build pride and ownership of what the country is offering among local communities,” St. Lucia Tourism Minister Allen Chastanet said during the launching of the new brand. The new strategy incorporates major programs to integrate community with the tourism industry, as the country moves away from agriculture into tourism, financial services and real estate development.
“The plan is to galvanize the population behind the brand and the ideals”, explains Colin Hunte of the STHTA. The idea of the flag is “to bring on the nation”.
Authenticity is happening across the board. Even Ritz Carlton confirmed at Marketplace that it has shifted with the times to focus more on local authenticity, moving away from classic designs more identified in the past with the brand. Several of the newer projects will now move away from the expected "Ritz Carlton" look. This is evidenced, for instance in the design of the planned Los Cabos property that models a Mexican hacienda. "The idea is to give a sense of place" to the design, senior vice president for Ritz Carlton for the Caribbean, Ezzat Coutry explained at the event. Likewise, Coutry said the new Ritz Carlton Reserve brand offers additional flexibility in customizing the design to reflect the local culture.
Director of Tourism of Bonaire, Ronella Tjin Asjoe-Croes stressed that growth needs to come while maintaining nature and culture. Bonaire is focusing on their national parks in their promotions.
Richard Skerritt, Tourism Minister of St Kitts said at the conference that "the message out there is for authenticity, sustainability and competitiveness." During Marketplace, he announced a program to support small hoteliers with tax free imports of inputs needed for the hotel, but at the same time requiring them to improve their product, and participate with the government in collaborative marketing efforts and stats gathering. He explained the program was implemented because the government is in the understanding that if only the large hotels survive the present crisis, the very nature of small hotels that are an attraction by themselves in the Caribbean would have disappeared. Skerritt also spoke of how their focus is now on nature, culture and history.
Ritz Carlton commitment in DR firm
Senior vice president for Ritz Carlton for the Caribbean, Ezzat Coutry says that the construction of the Ritz Carlton in Cap Cana, on the East Coast of the Dominican Republic is a firm commitment. "The project is confirmed. It is just a matter of the owners getting their financing," he said during a press conference in Caribbean Marketplace, the largest Caribbean travel-booking event. At the event, the company presented its Residences at The Ritz Carlton, St. Lucia planned property, where construction has also slowed.
"The situation is not as bleak as we thought, but it will be a challenging year," he said. Coutry mentioned that projects in Bahamas (Rose Island) and Turks & Caicos are also on hold due to setbacks in obtaining the planned Lehman Brothers financing. Other new projects in the Ritz Carlton pipeline for the next five years are Los Cabos (Mexico), Dorado Beach (Puerto Rico), St Kitts, Panama City, Bermuda and Colombia. "Development has truly not stopped, we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. Construction is moving ahead, nevertheless on the brand's Mexico City high-rise hotel.
Judy Whidden, sales manager wholesale says they “are having to do things differently to deal with the economic difficulties that are affecting their customers”. At their Cancun, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, San Juan and St. Thomas Caribbean properties, Ritz Carlton is enticing guests to come back with a "reconnect" campaign that offers attractive credits on stays, daily breakfast for two, and special wedding offerings with three complimentary nights on their return for their first anniversary.
Interval International wants more condo property
Interval International vice president David Callaghan would like to see more condo properties available in the Caribbean to fill the present demand. Speaking at Marketplace in St Lucia, he said that demand continues strong for Caribbean vacation exchanges. "We do not have enough fractional in the Caribbean, it is a market that is underserved."
He says that of the 2,400 resorts they have on offer in 75 countries, 7-8% of their exchanges go to the Caribbean. He said they have been affected by the real estate market that has stagnated last year, with developers not being able to deliver new product given what he describes as “a lack of interest in real estate sales on behalf of consumers”. He says what they are seeing is that "growth and development in condo-hotels has dried up".
He commented that property in the DR is usually a hotel room, not a condo property, which is what his members seek. He hopes to soon affiliate a property in the Punta Cana area.
"It is an opportunity that is being missed," he said highlighting this is in contradiction to the demand of their five million fractional vacation property owners that are looking for “high quality condominium hotels, with 2 beds, 2 baths that sleep 6 and that offer kitchen facilities.”
He says this has motivated them to go beyond their normal exchange programs, into the getaway programs, whereby guests can book seven night stays at hotels.
He comments that the exchange programs stimulate their members to travel and use their timeshares. "We know if they are not using it, they may not renew. We need them to get out there and have good experiences," he said.
Intra-Caribbean tax is barrier to travel
Enrique Eduardo de Marchena, president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, is advocating for Caribbean governments to reconsider the high cost of visas that affect inter-island traffic. Speaking during Marketplace, he mentioned that he had to pay US$50 for the right to get a visa and then had to wait an additional hour at the St. Lucia airport in order for his visa to be processed by migration authorities. "And it took a month to get the permit for the visa to be issued here, and I am the president of CHTA," he commented. "We are damaging ourselves," he stressed.
Alec Sanguinetti, executive director of the Caribbean Hotel Association, summed it up by saying that "we are putting up barriers to travelers." He said this is in contradiction to the spirit of free trade under the Caricom free trade agreement under effect within the Caribbean.
De Marchena said that St. Lucia's visa requirement for Dominicans was not unique. He said last year when visiting the Bahamas he had a similar problem. He said he was charged US$100 visa to enter Bahamas. At the time, he was told that the Bahamas government would create a task force to look into the issue.
De Marchena commended the more proactive approach that has been taken by Curacao that has implemented a program where anyone who already has a US or Schengen visa does not require a Curacao visa to enter the country. "The visa requirement is detrimental to traveling around the Caribbean, an area that is already affected by the lack of inter-air connections,” said De Marchena.

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