Nassau, Bahamas (eTN) – Aruba’s recent tourism numbers are expected to look positive compared to previous years. Travel & Tourism in Aruba was expected to rake in US$2354.9 million in economic activity as of 2007 end. Aruba’s Travel & Tourism Economy (direct and indirect impact) is expected to account for 70.1 percent of GDP and for 52000 jobs (82.4 percent of total employment), according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Despite a highly-sensationalized case involving tourist Natalee Holloway, an Alabaman teenager who traveled to the island but mysteriously disappeared two years ago, Aruba’s Travel & Tourism is expected to report 2.1 percent growth in 2007 and 3.3 percent per annum, in real terms, between 2008 and 2017.
With good news about Aruba reported by the tourism authorities, last December however, the media revisited an old, but not long- forgotten story. Prosecutors closed the case on Holloway’s disappearance in May 2005 on the Dutch Caribbean island. Authorities said they do not have evidence to charge suspects Joran van der Sloot and the Kalpoe brothers, Satish and Deepak, who were last seen with Holloway. They have been notified by the public prosecutor that they will not be charged. The press was abuzz with the latest developments.
eTN caught up with Aruba’s minister of tourism and transportation, Edison Briesen, who said the island is back in business despite the revival of the Holloway incident, which has become fodder for the media. In an exclusive interview at the Caribbean Hotel Association Marketplace held January 13-15 on Paradise Island, Bahamas, Briesen confirmed the US remains strong as its number one market.
eTN: How is the Aruban tourism industry reacting to the developments on the Holloway case being over?
Minister Briesen: We were strongly hit by this incident. Unfortunately last year, they’ve closed the case. But in the Dutch justice system, the case is not close. It will remain a silent, open case should any lead come in. We have spent a lot of money bringing in experts from day one to the last day of December 2007, including Dutch investigation experts. We heard the mother and the Holloway family will seek publicity again in the US, which we’ll have to counter.
From 2005 to early 2006, Aruba was badly hit by the incident due to the negative publicity. In October 2006, Aruba tourism recovered. I think we’ve turned the corner.
eTN: With an image of being a peaceful island on the Caribbean, why do you think this incident has been lingering and has continued to impact the tourism industry of Aruba?
Briesen: I don’t know about the family problems they have which seem to be the reason behind this case. In the Caribbean, this is the first time an island has been pounded this long by a single event. It’s been over a year and a half now and the publicity has not ended. I don’t know what other reasons there exist. We’ve opened our doors to help the family solve their issue. We’ve been cooperative and have spent a lot of government money on the investigation.
eTN: Could this have been a bad example of security loophole?
Briesen: We’ve had the FBI, the Aruban special task force, F16’s and special recovery vessels searching the island. Nothing turned up. It’s really a strange mystery. The island is so small, social ties are strong. Everybody knows everybody in Aruba. For us, this has been a mystery as well. Unfortunately, there is no closure just yet.
eTN: Has this been a big challenge to tourism?
Briesen: Among all challenges we’ve faced, including airlift, US economy slowdown, gas prices etc, this particularly has taken up our time and resources. Everybody got involved in this case. People from the tourism department have been moved to the justice department to help solve the disappearance. This incident has kept us ‘hostage’ for more than a year. In 2006, we even launched an ad campaign worth $5 M in the US to counter the negative broadcast. On the other side of the coin, more people now know about Aruba. But I would not want Aruba to be known in the same way Iraq is known. One reason why we think it has been a hard blow to us.
We are the safest island in the entire western hemisphere. Things like this don’t happen in Aruba.
eTN: Do you want closure for the family?
Briesen: Of course, we went out of our way to help them. We’ve been very cooperative.
eTN: What message do you have for the US travelers?
Briesen: What happened in Aruba has given us and the Caribbean a hard lesson to learn, which has become for us and everybody a model for crisis management on the islands. This is one case which we, as a member of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, have learned from and employed as a crisis model. We’ve received support from the CTO and the CHA through the years, with sustaining the US market, our loyal clients for over 30 years. Three of four visitors to Aruba are Americans. This is a case that boggles us. But we’d like to forget and move on.
We got tremendous support from the US market. Forty-two percent of our rooms are timeshare, booked primarily by Americans. They’ve helped us turn the corner so Aruba can move on.