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'Paradise' isle tries to entice back its terrified tourists; Mullany murders cast long shadow across Antigua.

Byline: Robin Turner

MILLIONS of dollars have been spent by the Antiguan government on repairing its ailing tourism industry following last year's murders of a Welsh honeymoon couple.

As the first anniversary of the brutal killings of Ben and Catherine Mullany approaches, the extent of the efforts of the paradise island's authorities to restore its peaceful image has been revealed.

But despite the appointment of scores of new police officers and a massive investment programme, travel experts say the destination's reputation could remain tarnished for a decade.

The bloody killings of the 31years-olds, which happened a year ago this Monday, echoed around the world as evidence of the "dark side of paradise", while headlines subsequently highlighted other tourist attacks and drug crimes.

Its reputation as a palm-fringed idyll was further tarnished in January this year when 38-year-old Drew Gollan, Australian skipper of the 162ft yacht Perseus, was shot and killed by robbers in front of his wife Alena, 28, and daughter Carolina, 21 months. A 21-year-old Antiguan has been charged with the murder.

As Ben and Catherine's family tried to come to terms with their murder with impressive dignity, the tourism industry in Antigua - which makes up 75% of its economy - suffered waves of cancellations.

Antigua Hotels and Tourist Association general manager Neil Forrester said: "There was a definite impact on bookings right up to the end of 2008."

This year, there has been a slow recovery, though latest available figures show visitor numbers were down 14% year on year in February and 12% in April.

In the last year, the wide-ranging programme of new measures introduced to increase security on Antigua, have included: 60 new police officers; 24-hour mobile police patrols; additional street lighting; the establishment of Crimestoppers Antigua, an anonymous phone line which locals can use to provide information on crimes; the investment by the island Government in a communications system to help speed up police response time to emergency calls; the allocation of high-speed computers and cameras providing detectives with real-time data on crimes; the appointment of top Canadian Police officers to head the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda; and the demolition of abandoned buildings used by criminals as hide-outs.

On the anniversary of the Mullany murders next Monday, Angela Hills, head of health and safety at the Association of British Travel Agents, will travel to Antigua to host a seminar for local hoteliers and tour operators.

She said: "The Mullanys were living the dream and you don't expect the dream to end like that. There were a lot of headlines over the first few days, but I think Antigua handled it well.

"The Antiguans have asked us to provide training and information for hoteliers on how to handle petty or serious crime, food poisoning and other incidents."

Steve Garley, commercial director of travel company Tropical Sky, says he believes Antigua's tourist trade will recover.

He said: "Undoubtedly people traded away from Antigua and there will probably be an-otheburst of trading away when the case comes to court and gets more publicity, but in the long term it will not affect Antigua. It remains in my view, and the Foreign Office's view, a safe des-tination."

LatesForeign Office advice notes that "Antigua and Barbuda is a friendly and welcoming country and overall crime rates are relatively low" but adds: "There has been an overall increase in crime in Antigua over recent months, including gun crime."

Simon Calder, a veteran travel writer and presenter of BBC's Travel Show, said: "I'm afraid there is little the island can do to rectify the situation as, unfortunately, for the next five or even 10 years it is going to be known as the 'honeymoon murder island'. Ironically, Antigua is now likely to be much, much safer than it was, given the attention that is being given to ridding the island of violent crime," he added.

Two Antiguans, Avie Howell, 18, and Kaniel Martin, 21, are due to stand trial charged with murdering the Mullanys in Antigua this autumn.

CAPTION(S):

TRAGEDY: Ben and Catherine Mullany on their wedding day 'SAFER NOW': Simon Calder FATAL ATTRACTION: The luxury Cocos resort on Antigua, West Indies, where honeymooners Ben and Catherine Mullany were murdered almost a year ago
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jul 22, 2009
Words:705
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