The state of the global economy and its impact on the tourism industry worldwide has been widely reported and has engaged the attention of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and its members for some time.

It is no secret that the economic uncertainty and fluctuations in consumer confidence are having a ripple effect, but I’m happy to say that interest in the Caribbean remains high in North America. As we move toward 2009 we see some positive signs for the industry.

We are particularly pleased to note the investment that our airline partners are making in the Caribbean. Low fare carriers such as JetBlue, AirTran, Spirit and WestJet have added seats and new services for the winter season and our more traditional carriers such as American Airlines, Delta, Air Jamaica, Caribbean Airlines and Air Canada have either added new flights in select markets or in most cases re-committed their existing services. We are appreciative of the airlines’ support and look forward to further strengthening the relationship between them and the Caribbean in the coming months. Cruising, which is another essential element of Caribbean tourism, continues to show increases in the number of itineraries that include Caribbean ports.

We also see a positive sign in the growing numbers of U.S. citizens who are obtaining passports. According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 15.7 million new passports have been issued in 2008 with first-time applicants accounting for nearly 75 percent of the total. In short, the number of Americans currently residing in the U.S. who hold valid passports will top 88 million by year end, representing more than 31 percent of the U.S. population. What this means is that the target population in the U.S for foreign vacations – including of course the Caribbean - has never been greater.

In addition, our destinations continue to add new product, with hotel and resort developments and openings continuing throughout our region. The addition of these new hotels, resorts and attractions will continue to keep the Caribbean product fresh and provide new reasons for consumers to come back and first-time visitors to experience what so many before them have known – that there is no place like the Caribbean.

The other good news for travelers is that there has never been a better time to take advantage of outstanding values in Caribbean vacations. Our airlines, travel professionals and suppliers have been rolling out a variety of enticing offers over the past few weeks. We know of no other place that offers the combination of proximity, quality accommodations, warm and welcoming people, unmatched beauty, cultural diversity and an environment that emphasizes stress-free escapes. The Caribbean delivers a truly distinctive product at affordable prices.

We also know, however, that in these challenging economic times the Caribbean tourism industry will need to provide an even greater commitment to a consistently high quality vacation experience. From the CTO’s standpoint, we are working with all our destination partners to find new ways to enhance our value and aggressively promote our considerable competitive advantages.

There has never been a more important time for the Caribbean to work closely with our partners and push hard to support global tourism as a whole. We are extremely encouraged by the willingness of our members and associates to work together to find solutions to the various challenges that confront the tourism business, to access the best information on consumer behavior and to help us acquire the resources our region needs to build a sustainable, even more buoyant industry.

We have much to be thankful for in the Caribbean for the many blessings that have been bestowed on us. Caribbean tourism, like the Caribbean people, is resilient and strong. So while there is no doubt that challenges lie ahead, there are none that are insurmountable if we continue to work together and remember one very important fact: now, more than ever, Life Needs the Caribbean!