By NEIL HARTNELL Tribune Business Editor STOPOVER visitor numbers for the 2011 full year are likely to be 3-4 per cent down on 2010 comparisons, the minister of tourism and aviation conceded yesterday, although the group business rebound meant the Bahamas was set for a "strong first quarter" in 2012. While admitting that it was "a little bit disappointing" that the Bahamian tourism industry had not attracted the number of higher spending stopover numbers originally projected, Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace told Tribune Business it had been "no mean achievement" to come back from January's 11 per cent fall. He attributed the failure to meet stopover projections to January's winter snow storms that impacted key US east coast airports, making accessing the Bahamas difficult, together with Hurricane Irene's impact at end-August and subsequent room availability, particularly at Sandals and SuperClubs Breezes. "We're a little bit disappointed that we're not going to hit the kind of stopover numbers at year-end that we thought we would," Mr Vanderpool-Wallace told Tribune Business. "We had some superior and special expectations for August and September compared to last year, and they did not pan out. We're a little bit disappointed, but are going to round out the year with a fairly strong performance in terms of rates and occupancies. "It appears we're going to have a good, strong first quarter next year, largely on the back of the business that we most the most, which is group business." Asked where total stopover visitor numbers to the Bahamas were likely to close at the 2011 year-end, Mr Vanderpool-Wallace told Tribune Business: "They're likely to be somewhere between 3-4 per cent down compared to last year. We started the year almost 11 per cent down in January. To come back in that way is no mean achievement, and we continued the very successful Companion Fly Free programme." Mr Vanderpool-Wallace, though, acknowledged that the tourism market "is still very weak" due to the global economic problems, with visitors "being very judicious in what they do on spending on a vacation". The economic climate was effectively favouring lower-cost destinations and all-inclusive resorts, models that the Bahamas had largely moved away from, instead focusing on the higher-spending stopover segment. With the emphasis on value, Mr Vanderpool-Wallace said its cruise industry had become the Bahamas' value proposition, with passengers able to see the country through their vessels calling in at multiple islands - sometimes as many as three - in this nation. The minister said the Bahamas was continuing to make inroads on increasing airlift. He told Tribune Business that Copa Airlines was set to expand its Panama City-Nassau to six flights a week come December 4, "the fastest expansion of any of their destinations, and they're upgrading the size of the aircraft they're using". "To go almost from a standing start to where they are has been a very rapid increase," Mr Vanderpool-Wallace said of Copa. "They're running very high loads to grow the size of the aircraft and frequency, so the growth of demand has already been spectacular." Jet Blue had commenced direct service to Nassau from Westchester County, New York, while Delta Airlines was set to resume service to Nassau from New York's La Guardia airport next year, rather than routing all traffic through Atlanta. "We continue to win that battle in a number of areas," Mr Vanderpool-Wallace said of airlift.