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Tourism guru Jorge Pesquera now promotes Aruba for a living
The San Juan Star / November 15, 2004

By Larry Luxner

ORANJESTAD, Aruba — Puerto Rican politics, rejas on the windows and Hato Rey's notorious traffic jams are all unpleasant but fading memories for Jorge Pesquera, former chief of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau.

"It takes me three minutes to drive to work," Pesquera says cheerfully. "I can go home for lunch, which is unheard of [in San Juan]. Crime isn't an issue here, and has never been. I'm very happy here."

And why shouldn't he be?

Since mid-March, Pesquera has run the Aruba Hotel and Tourism Association (AHATA), one of the most influential organizations in this tourism-driven Dutch island 15 miles north of Venezuela.

Interviewed last month at his office just outside Oranjestad, Aruba's quaint, little capital city, Pesquera said he had just marked his 10th anniversary at the Convention Bureau when Aruba came calling.

"I had been here before to make a presentation to the general assembly of AHATA," he said. "One day, a headhunter called me in Puerto Rico and asked if I was interested in running this thing. One thing led to another and, basically, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

There's no question that Pesquera enjoys a higher profile in Aruba, population 100,000, than he ever did in Puerto Rico, population four million.

For one thing, tourism accounts for only 6% of Puerto Rico's GDP. In Aruba, the industry generates 40% of GDP and 70% of government revenues. Seven in 10 Arubans are employed in tourism, said Pesquera.

At the moment, AHATA operates on an annual budget of $4.1 million and represents 23 of the island's 30 four- and five-star properties, or about 5,900 of Aruba's 7,200 rooms.

"This is a very different job than being head of the Convention Bureau," he said. "That was pure destination marketing. All they do is knock on the doors of associations and corporations, with a comprehensive strategy to convince them to pick Puerto Rico versus a trillion other destinations."

AHATA, on the other hand, "is in the security business, the environmental business, the marketing business. It's a hybrid between destination marketing and advocacy."

Pesquera, 51, was born in San Juan, attended high school in Bethesda, Md., and studied hotel administration at Cornell University. He started his tourism career as an assistant personnel manager at the Caribe Hilton. Over time, he worked his way up to director of human resources for Hilton's Caribbean and Latin American division, and finally as director of human resources worldwide for Hilton International in London.

Pesquera's career eventually took him back to Puerto Rico, where in 1994 he joined the Convention Bureau. At the time, the bureau's annual budget was $3 million; when he left, it had grown to $9 million, and San Juan's new convention center was well on its way of becoming a reality.

"I'm very proud of the fact that the Convention Bureau took a strong role in bringing that to fruition," he told The STAR. "We had some serious battles with the Ports Authority and the Department of Transportation and Public Works. We lobbied politicians and the tourism authorities, and did whatever we could to make the footprint as big as possible."

Pesquera, who has since been replaced at the Convention Bureau by Ana María Viscasillas, was also the director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company for six months, but that job didn't last because he was never confirmed by the Senate.

Pesquera says he's not bitter about that, but he regrets what he calls the inability of government officials in Puerto Rico to "think outside the box."

"There's an expectation of not rocking the boat," he said. "My focus has always been on implementing the best practices, programs and initiatives that I can adapt to the realities of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, that modus operandi does not necessarily sit well with some folks there, and that's too bad."

Pesquera calls his decision to move to Aruba a "calculated adventure."

"Quality of life was a big issue for us," he said. "There are some risks inherent in this, but we have a child now, and I figured that this was an opportunity for international experience. It's certainly a very different style of life than Puerto Rico."

Even so, the two Caribbean islands have quite a lot in common. For one thing, nearly everyone in Aruba speaks Spanish, in addition to Dutch, English and the native language, Papiamento.

And like Puerto Rico, Aruba been the subject of an ongoing status debate for some time. Originally part of the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba broke away from the six-island federation in 1986 and now has what the locals call status aparte, within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Aruba's governor is appointed by the queen, and its judicial system is heavily influenced by the Dutch system. It's not an independent country, and most Arubans are happy to be associated with Holland, although as is the case with Puerto Rico, a tiny fraction of the island's 100,000 inhabitants support complete independence.

"Everybody carries a Dutch passport, but Aruba operates as an autonomous territory with its own currency and its own postal system. It's a little more autonomous [from Holland] than Puerto Rico is from the U.S.," said Pesquera. "When they talk about being liberated, they mean liberation from the control of Curaçao, which used to be the seat of power."

Per-capita income in Aruba hovers around $20,000, which is one of the highest in the Caribbean, and twice that of Puerto Rico. There's very little manufacturing, almost no unemployment, and outside of an oil refinery, nearly the entire island is directly or indirectly connected to the tourism industry.

"The entire island is a resort. It's compact, like Scottsdale, Ariz., with an unbelievable 25-mile-long beach. It's safe, people are very friendly, and you're not in a tourist compound in Fajardo or Rincón — or in Jamaica for that matter. You can enjoy the entire place. Oranjestad is a very attractive little town with its waterfront and boardwalk, and lots of activities at night."

According to AHATA statistics, the average visitor to Aruba is 47 years old, with median household income of $77,000. Most visitors to Aruba are married couples, and they stay an average 7.1 days, compared to an average stay of 2.1 days in Puerto Rico.

"This is a fundamental difference between Puerto Rico and Aruba," he said. "Puerto Rico enjoys that huge individual business market. They can get higher yields because they have a good base of individuals and groups. Here, it's all leisure. All our eggs are in one basket."

He added that the incentive market is growing, "but we don't have a large ethnic population, so we don't have a lot of ethnic travel" as does Puerto Rico.

Another difference is that in Puerto Rico, timeshares are negligible, whereas in Aruba, they account for up to 40% of all business.

Interestingly, Aruba received 4,225 visitors from Puerto Rico in 2003, up 12.5% from the year before. Virtually all of them come via American Airlines, which has a daily flight from San Juan, or via American Eagle, which flies three times a week from San Juan.

"The Aruba Tourism Authority has had an ongoing effort in Puerto Rico, but there are issues of airlift, and prices are high, about $360 for a round-trip ticket," said Pesquera. "I would love to increase visitor arrivals from Puerto Rico. We have a tremendous opportunity there."

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