This is the time of year when the island nations of the Caribbean normally expect their hotels and beaches to be packed with sun seekers. But this year, cash-strapped North Americans and Europeans are staying home.

Visitor numbers will fall by up to a third, reckons Harold Lovell, who chairs the Caribbean Tourism Organization. The hotel association in Tobago says that only one bed in three is occupied.

Developments on hold

Atlantis, a megaresort in the Bahamas, laid off 800 people in November, while flights to Nassau, the capital, have been cut by a quarter. The picture is similar in the Dominican Republic, while a strong increase in tourist arrivals in Cuba tailed off in the last three months of last year.

The scarcity of tourists has halted some ambitious expansion plans, and is a blow to fragile economies.

The Bahamas had approved investments worth more than $20 billion over the next five years.

Mayaguana, a sparsely populated island of crystal seas and white sand, was set for a $1.8 billion resort with the world's longest airport runway. Now its topography may remain undisturbed. Baha Mar, a $2.6 billion project in Nassau that would have employed 4,400 building workers, has been stopped by the withdrawal of its American casino partner.

Other large developments are on hold in Jamaica, St. Lucia and Anguilla.

Since the 1990s, most big Caribbean tourism projects have been planned around second (or third) homes for baby boomers. Grand designs show a sprawl of houses and apartments arrayed around a small-but-pricey hotel, a golf course and marina, and perhaps a casino.

Most of the development is financed by sales of vacant real estate, much of it as time shares. Plunging housing markets and the credit crunch have put a stop to all that.

There are other sources of woe.

Trinidad's 10-year energy boom has suffered a jolt from falling oil and gas prices. Smaller islands, which prospered from offshore finance, worry about tighter international controls. And remittances from workers abroad have fallen.

In Jamaica, remittances shrank by an average of 14 percent in November and December compared with the same months in 2007. The price of bauxite, Jamaica's other big earner, has more than halved since its peak in July. Many among the island's middle class lost their savings last year (and some their homes) in unregulated investment scams.

With government revenue already below target, Jamaica has nevertheless cut taxes. Others would like to do so. But many Caribbean nations are highly indebted.

With finance tight, raising cash from asset sales is harder: Jamaica failed to meet its target of privatizing its sugar industry, and the Bahamas its telecoms, by the end of the year.

After a decade of borrowing in the markets, Caribbean governments have once again become clients of the international development banks.