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THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Caribbean Feels an Autumn Chill, Whats New In Puerto Rico This Season
October 28, 2001
The Caribbean Feels an Autumn Chill
By TERRY TRUCCO
IT did not take long for Caribbean resorts to feel the aftershocks of Sept. 11.
With the approach of high season beginning Dec. 22 and running through mid-April, resorts throughout the Caribbean are bracing for an uncertain winter, possibly their most difficult since the Persian Gulf war in 1991. John Bell, chief executive officer of the Caribbean Hotel Association, foresees two scenarios for the season. "If the acts of 11 September are not repeated, and the public feel secure traveling, the season won't be great but will probably be respectable," he said, but if terrorist activity accelerates and people are afraid to leave home or fly, the season will be "pretty bleak." A number of Club Meds are closing for the winter season or longer.
Yet at resorts that attract large numbers of repeat guests, full or nearly full houses are expected at Christmas, the season's first big-profit period. Holiday bookings are particularly strong at luxury resorts, in part because guests, required to book far before Sept. 11, would have lost sizable deposits had they canceled.
But while reservations look solid for Presidents' Week in February, those for the season's other peak the first three months of 2002 are below normal, leaving travel agents and resorts, already reeling from losses during September and October, anxious about the season ahead. The United States military strikes against Afghanistan did not cause the flood of cancellations or postponements set off by the events of Sept. 11, Mr. Bell said. But bookings for space in March, often snapped up in October, are slow, with a sharp drop in reservations from first-time visitors.
To coax visitors, the resorts are awash in deals, from deep cuts in room prices to free air fares. Though most incentives are available through mid-December, a few continue through January.
In addition, island governments, including those of the United States Virgin Islands, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, have stepped in to help finance deals to lure visitors.
Some resorts and rental villas have waived the two- week minimum stay normally required at Christmas. But many resorts have refrained from drastically cutting high-season prices or adding incentives.
Eager to be perceived as a safe haven, the islands claim to have tightened airport security. At the airports on St. Thomas and St. Croix, cars can no longer park by the curb, and all cars are searched, said Pam Richard, chief executive officer for the Port Authority of the United States Virgin Islands. The Coast Guard patrols the waters around the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, she added. At hotels, visitors come and go easily, though most resorts have upgraded security, Mr. Bell said.
The hope throughout the Caribbean is that visitors will look to the islands as a warm, familiar escape from a troubled world. Travel industry experts believe that, should people decide to travel, the Caribbean is attractively situated, a short hop by plane from the East Coast and a considerable distance from trouble spots like the Middle East. "I think as the cold weather sets in, people will want to be someplace where it's safe, it's sunny, and they can feel closer to nature," said Sylvia Delvaille- Jones, the owner of Villas and Apartments Abroad, an agency that rents villas in the Caribbean.
Even before Sept. 11, worries about the economy in the United States and elsewhere had dampened hopes that winter 2001-2 would be a record breaker.
In addition, hotels in the Caribbean, as elsewhere, are struggling with high energy costs and, in many cases, steep payments for renovation and expansion. In this atmosphere, the dramatic drop in visitors so far has prompted speculation that not all Caribbean resorts will survive the season.
"Everyone is holding their breaths, but I would not expect mass closings in the Caribbean," said Scott Berman, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "But destinations that rely on North American visitors, like Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, will be impacted more than those with more European business."
In another reflection of this fall's financial difficulties, more workers than usual were laid off or had hours cut. As a temporary measure following Sept. 11, Wyndham laid off about 5 percent of its Caribbean workforce and shortened staff hours by 25 percent.
In a region so dependent on tourism, many governments plan to help hotels withstand losses. In Puerto Rico, lodging establishments will receive a 30 percent discount on energy bills and can keep half the government room tax for 90 days, beginning Nov. 1.
Indeed, the Caribbean has a renewed appreciation for its visitors. Anguilla, for example, has instructed customs officials to be friendly when guests arrive.
"The islands have learned you can't take your market for granted," said David Flack, general manager of the Cuisinart Resort. "I think once people get here, the islanders are going to be very happy to have them."
TERRY TRUCCO writes frequently for the Travel section.
WINTER IN THE SUN: Whats New In Puerto Rico This Season
By FRANCES FRANK MARCUS
October 28, 2001
NOT long ago in the Caribbean, before narrow old streets offered cybercafes and a walk in the forest was called an eco-tour, options for running away from winter were fairly straightforward often just a simple room on a beach.
But even in places where summer never ends, things change and in recent years, comforts and diversions have been multiplying.
This year the islands have been preparing for high season with more and more refined enticements: attractive new hotels, luxurious suites added at established hotels, glossy renovations, more kayaking and hiking trips, stylish new restaurants.
Now, in the wake of Sept. 11, followed by a frenzy of cancellations, resorts some still rushing to finish renovations are facing a winter of uncertainty.
"Obviously, it's going to be very difficult as it is for everybody in this business," said Michael Youngman, director of marketing for the Caribbean Tourism Organization, speaking early this month of the islands' outlook for the high winter season. "As of now, people are not booking to go anywhere except possibly skiing. It's going to be a question of hanging in there."
Despite the uncertainty, Mr. Youngman, like his colleagues, said, "We think it won't be a banner season, but it will hold up reasonably well." He based his hopes partly on travelers from Europe, such as divers who might have been planning a trip to the Red Sea but decide to visit the coral-rich Caribbean instead. "Visitors view the Caribbean as reasonably secure," he added.
By the middle of the month he reported that "Bookings are slowly coming back."
Here is what is new in Puerto Rico this season. Rates are for two people in a room or suite in high season, from mid-December to March or April; higher prices are in effect for the Christmas-New Year holidays. But don't assume the prices are unalterably fixed. This winter especially, there may be last-minute bargains, depending on how bookings develop.
On the island's north coast, the seven-story, oceanfront Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar Beach and Golf Resort, which opened in August, is 25 miles west of Old San Juan. Tropical Spanish in style, the hotel, set on about six acres, has a free-form lagoon-style pool with a bar and grill, an 18-hole golf course designed by Chi Chi Rodriguez with ocean and mountain views, two tennis courts, a fitness center and water sports. There are 174 two-room suites, each with a separate living area, two television sets, a wet bar, coffee maker, refrigerator and microwave. From $345, plus 9 percent tax, including breakfast cooked to order and cocktails; (800) 362-2779 for reservations or (787) 796-6125, fax (787) 796-6145; on the Web at www.embassysuites.com.
On the beach in the Isla Verde area of San Juan, the former Colonial Hotel and Beach Resort reopened Oct. 15 as the Water Club. It is a member of the Design Hotels group that also includes such trendy establishments as the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and The Halkin in London. All 84 rooms have water views, with beds positioned to face the ocean. The 11th-floor open-air Wet Bar will have a rooftop fireplace, white sectional sofas and zebra-wood bar stools; the pool is one floor above, and in a turret above that, a massage table is hung from the ceiling. High season rates, $395 to $455 (with an $169 introductory rate that is good until Dec. 23); (888) 265-6699 or on the Web at www.designhotels.com.