The San Juan Star / November 15, 2004
By Larry Luxner
ORANJESTAD, Aruba — Long envied by other Caribbean islands for its ability to attract well-heeled tourists and get them to come back year after year, Aruba nevertheless needs to vary its tourism product as the island's economy changes with the times.
That's the message from Edison Briesen, Aruba's minister of tourism and transportation.
Briesen spoke during the 27th annual meeting of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, which brought hundreds of tourism officials, tour operators, hotel executives, travel agents and journalists to Aruba for a four-day period last month.
"We want to broaden Aruba's tourism appeal in order to increase untapped markets, especially from Europe; to increase local employment; to diversify the style of accommodation, and to establish tourism across the island, taking advantage of the multicultural composition of our population," Briesen told the CTO delegates.
Last year, Aruba lured 642,000 stayover visitors to its shores. Of that, 72% came from the United States, 11% from Latin America (principally Venezuela), 9% from Europe and 3% from Canada. Aruba also received an additional 1.5 million cruise-ship passengers.
Year-to-date figures show continuing growth in tourist arrivals. During the first eight months of 2004, the North American market grew 19.5% over the year-ago period, while European arrivals were up by 12% and Latin American arrivals up 7.5%.
Average hotel occupancy is now 81%, and Aruba has a repeat visitor rate of around 30%.
Briesen said that much of Aruba's success in developing a vibrant tourism industry has to do with the island's relative autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
"Before 1986, we were part of the Dutch Antilles, and we had to go through the central government based in Curaçao. Now we have status aparti," he explained, using the Papamiento word for Aruba's current political status.
"There are three areas in which Holland takes responsibility: foreign affairs, defense and the supreme court. In all other areas, we are autonomous. That has given us the opportunity to be more effective, and has enabled us to move quickly. We don't have to deal with six islands to take one decision."
Yet being so dependent on tourism also has its disadvantages. Almost all the big high-rise hotels are clustered along a narrow coastal strip along Aruba's western coast, just north of Oranjestad.
As a result, many tourists book day tours that take them to the island's most visited attractions — such as the California Lighthouse, the Natural Bridge and the Aruba Ostrich Farm — but relatively few of them ever see San Nicolas or the deserted beaches to the south.
"Our strategy of diversifying Aruba's tourism is to redirect tourism away from the most developed areas, taking advantage of the island's underused cultural and natural resources. That will tempt more tourists to visit other parts of the island," said Briesen, adding that "in diversifying accommodations, opportunities arise for building smaller-size hotels. That reduces the need to bring in large numbers of guest workers."
The industry has also attracted some 20,000 immigrants from Colombia, Venezuela and Peru, many of whom have been living in Aruba for years.
Something else Briesen would like to do is turn Aruba into a retirement haven for aging Americans. The island would be ideal for this sort of market, he said, because of its excellent medical system, its relatively hot, dry climate and the fact that both English and Spanish are widely spoken, which would make it particularly attractive for Hispanic seniors.
"We see that many tourists return to Aruba throughout their lives, as children, newlyweds and adults. It is possible to extend this tourism cycle by encouraging them to retire in Aruba and establish retirement condominiums," he said. "This would also lessen the fluctuations of the Aruban tourism sector, and cushion us from extreme downturns."
The island enjoys good airlift from its most important markets, and is served by all major U.S. airlines including American, United, Continental and Delta. It is also served from Europe via KLM, and from Venezuela via Aeropostal. Last month, it began receiving nonstop weekly flights from Brazil on Varig.
Earlier this year, the government signed an agreement with Holland's Schiphol Group to convert Aruba's Queen Juliana International Airport "into a more convenient, modern, sophisticated business center," said Briesen.
The contract is for a three-year period, with an optional five-year extension. The project envisions a $90 million investment over the next five to 10 years.
"Before, airports used to be facilities to say 'bonbini' and goodbye," he said. "Schiphol Airport [in Amsterdam] is known for its shopping, and the Schiphol Group has also lured carriers into JFK's Terminal 4. So we are very happy now that they are reshaping this master plan for our airport. Probably by the end of this year, we will be signing fixed-base operations."