* British tax on plane tickets could hurt tourism
* Friendly image threatened by crime, high murder rates
By Linda Hutchinson-Jafar
SAN JUAN, Jan 28 (Reuters) - After taking a flogging last year, the Caribbean tourism industry is looking toward an improvement in 2010 despite concerns about a British-imposed environmental tax and crime against tourists on some islands.
Earthquake-hit Haiti has not been a major tourist destination, except for Royal Caribbean’s (RCL.N) private Labadee beach resort on the north coast, which was spared from damage.
But most other Caribbean islands depend heavily on tourism for revenue and jobs, and reported declines last year as the global economic crisis and credit crunch kept Europeans and North Americans at home.
The tourism minister in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Allan Chastanet, said he has been meeting with airline officials and arranging for additional flights.
“We will probably end the year 5.6 percent down but we’re looking for a strong rebound in 2010,” Chastanet told Reuters during Caribbean Marketplace, an annual event hosted by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association which brings together hoteliers and suppliers.
St. Lucia received 360,000 stayover visitors — those who spend money on hotel rooms and on restaurants — and saw a 15 percent increase in cruise arrivals.
Tobago, the smaller sister island of Trinidad, suffered significant declines in tourist arrivals from their major UK market and also from Germany.
“The economic situation globally impacted negatively on Tobago. Hotels reported as much as a 40 percent decline in stayover, particularly from the British and the German markets,” said hotelier Rene Seepersadsingh.
While most of the islands are reporting a poor 2009 for tourism, Jamaica saw an increase of 4 percent in arrivals.
“It was a good year for us notwithstanding everything globally,” said Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett.
Jamaica has been running television ads across North America during an unusually cold winter to entice viewers to its warm climate, and hopes for one of its best years.
“For this winter season now beginning, we have a record 1 million (airline) seats which is the largest number we ever had,” Bartlett told Reuters.
While tourism officials are optimistic about improvement in the industry this year, they’re worried about the impact of an environmental tax the UK government imposes on air travelers.
When a rate hike takes effect in November, an economy-class ticket from a UK airport to the Caribbean will carry a tax of 75 pounds ($122) while the tax on a first class ticket is 150 pounds ($244).
“It’s a tax that is unfair, unnecessary and unjust,” said John Taker, purchasing director at Virgin Holidays.
Many of the islands face an additional challenge of convincing potential travelers of their safety following several crimes against tourists.
Armed robbers in the Bahamas have targeted cruise ship visitors, while travel advisories have been issued for Trinidad and Tobago because of sexual assaults and murders of tourists and foreign residents.
Though local residents are more often targeted than visitors, the region is struggling with high murder rates.
Bermuda had six murders in 2009 and one already this year. At least three of the killings were gang-related.
Hotelier Michael Winfield, chairman of the Bermuda Alliance for Tourism, said the killings and the resulting international publicity threatened the island’s image.
“One of Bermuda’s strongest selling points has, traditionally, been its safety and friendliness and for that main plank of our profile to now be threatened is alarming; this at a time when projections are already very poor,” Winfield said in Bermuda.
Seeparsadsingh said Tobago had boosted police presence, while the crime detection rate has been increasing.
Jamaica, described as one of the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere, continues to attracts tourists despite its staggering murder rate. The island logged 1,680 murders last year, a record for the nation of 2.7 million people.
“It’s a contradiction. The most iconic attraction in Jamaica is the people. It belies the crime statistics,” Bartlett said. (Additional reporting by Horace Helps in Jamaica and Sam Strangeways in Bermuda; Editing by Jane Sutton and Alan Elsner)