Caribbean tourism, an economic mainstay for many island nations, enjoyed its third straight year of recovery in 2004 from a slump that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said.
Despite another blow delivered by a violent hurricane season last year, regional officials said marketing plans and high-profile events should allow the industry that employs 15 percent of Caribbean islanders to continue growing.
The Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization said recently that it expected land-based tourist arrivals in its 32-member countries to have increased by around 6 percent to 21.6 million in 2004, once final figures are tallied.
On top of that, cruise ship passenger visits are believed to have grown by 12 percent to more than 20 million.
"The growth continued into 2004 and all indications are that growth is expected to continue into 2005," said Berthia Parle, president of the Puerto Rico-based Caribbean Hotel Association.
The tourism industry accounts for more than 15.5 percent of employment in the Caribbean region and a slump in air travel after Sept. 11, 2001, hit many countries hard.
In some islands, the proportion is as high as 50 percent.
Parle, a St. Lucia hotelier, said Antigua and Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands derived more than 75 percent of their gross domestic product from tourism.
Travel and tourism accounted for 50-75 percent of the GDP in four Caribbean countries and 25-50 percent in 10 countries.
"It is in fact the only viable economic sector of the region, in spite of the adversities being experienced by some of our islands," Parle said. "Nothing has emphasized the fragility and vulnerability of our Caribbean economies more than the recent hurricane activity."
The 2004 Atlantic hurricane season was a blockbuster. Six "major" hurricanes with winds in excess of 110 mph swept through the Atlantic, destroying 90 percent of buildings on Grenada, killing 3,000 people in Haiti and also causing extensive damage in Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.
According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a U.N. agency, the storms caused $5.7 billion in damages and set back economic development by several years.
But officials said that with the help of a number of upcoming marketing opportunities, Caribbean tourism should continue to grow.
Topping the list, according to Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, is the 2007 World Cup Cricket tournament.
The international sporting event will be viewed around the world by an estimated 1.7 billion people while organizers expect to lure more than 100,000 foreign cricket fans to the region to watch 16 teams play 51 matches over a 40-day period, Patterson said last week during the Caribbean Hotel Association's annual trade fair.