Could airline cutbacks send Caribbean beachgoers elsewhere this winter?

That's the growing concern of Caribbean tourism industry leaders as they grapple with a double whammy of reduced air service and a slumping U.S. economy.

A reduction in air service — the only way for most Americans to reach the Caribbean's white-sand beaches — could make the journey less convenient and airfares more expensive, ultimately discouraging trips.

"Every seat that we lose is an opportunity for a tourist to come to the Caribbean," says Enrique De Marchena Kaluche, president of the Caribbean Hotel Association and co-chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Development Co.

For December, U.S. airlines scheduled 17 percent less service from the lower 48 states to the Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, compared with December 2007, according to an analysis of OAG flight schedules. Other findings:

Of the five carriers that provide most of the service — American, US Airways, Delta, Continental and JetBlue — only JetBlue grew capacity.

Service is down to the four most-served islands. In December, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic will have 26 percent less service; Jamaica is down 15 percent, and the Bahamas down 10 percent.

Airlines are reducing frequencies as well as scrapping some routes by December. American drops Dallas/Fort Worth to Turks & Caicos. Delta drops Atlanta-Guadeloupe, and Continental drops Newark-Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

The cutbacks come at a time when the Caribbean is seeing huge development. About $100 billion is committed to development of hotels and resorts over the next five to six years, with much of it targeting luxury travelers, says Alec Sanguinetti, Caribbean Hotel Association CEO.

Still, the region is a favorite spot with price-sensitive families and honeymooners, but they're increasingly raising eyebrows when they hear winter airfares, says Nancy Yale of Cruise Resort & World Travel in Fairfield, Conn.

"We have people calling for Christmas right now, and $1,000 is the cheapest that you're going to find," she says.

Puerto Rico is aggressively trying to offset airlines' problems by offering new incentives, says Terestella Gonzalez Denton, executive director of the government-sponsored Puerto Rico Tourism Co. One success: AirTran's service from Baltimore to San Juan, starting Dec. 20.

JetBlue this winter is adding flights to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Nassau and Bermuda because Caribbean routes can generate higher revenue than domestic routes and competition is dwindling, says Sebastian White, a JetBlue spokesman.

"When we saw these recent opportunities open up, we couldn't pass them by," he says.