SAN JUAN -- Still smarting from the disappearance of Alabama teen Natalee Holloway last summer and the subsequent negative media coverage worldwide, Aruba tourism officials unveiled a number of initiatives designed to propel tourism forward in 2006.

Our name recognition has never been higher, for better or worse, said Jorge Pesquera, CEO of the Aruba Hotel and Tourism Authority.

Pesquera said that despite the publicity surrounding Holloways disappearance and the events that followed, 2005 was a successful year for Aruba in terms of both visitor numbers and the launch of new projects on the island.

Not all figures are in yet, but we recorded an overall growth of 3% from the U.S. through October. Hotel occupancy averaged 82% year round, up from 79% in 2004.

Echoing that sentiment was Edison Briesen, Arubas minister of tourism, who addressed the media at the recent Caribbean Marketplace in San Juan.

Briesen outlined several projects in the works:

  • The development of a second tourism corridor at Baby Beach on the eastern end of Aruba.

  • A $60 million expansion at Queen Beatrix Airport and an expansion of the cruise ship terminal.

  • An upgrade and renovation project in downtown Oranjestad.

  • The launch of a tourism-training program for locals called the Promise.

  • More than $150 million in various hotel renovations, including groundbreaking on the $5.2 million oceanfront spa at the Radisson Aruba Resort and Casino, scheduled to open in November; the $24 million expansion at the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino; and the reopening of the 415-room Occident- al Grand Aruba this month, which had been closed since last June. The $20 million refurbishment of the 360-room Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort and Casino, set to start in June, will include all rooms, the lobby, the spa, casino and Palms restaurant and beach bar.

  • The continuation of the Aruba Certified Expert specialist program for travel agents.
  • In addition, an announcement regarding the purchase of the 152-room Bushiri Hotel -- closed and on the market for several years -- is expected this month, according to Briesen.

    Several groups are interested in the property, and we expect that negotiations for its purchase will be completed in February, he said. The new property will have 350 rooms and a casino.

    Although Aruba had what Briesen called its ups and downs in 2005, officials forecast growth of 14% to 15% in tourism numbers and revenues in 2006.

    Safety and hospitality have been the pillars of our tourism industry and will continue to be so, said Briesen.

    Appearing with Briesen at Caribbean Marketplace was Steve Cohen, a crisis manager who has served as an adviser to the Aruba Hotel and Tourism Authority and the Aruba Strategic Communications Task Force in the wake of Holloways disappearance.

    Cohen, a senior consultant with the Strategic Message Design Group in Los Angeles and a former journalist and broadcaster, predicted an important break on the Holloway case within the next six months.

    This is based on accelerated search efforts for forensic DNA evidence and the willingness of Aruban locals to come forward and speak with officials now that the worldwide media, for the most part, are leaving us alone, Cohen said.

    We also are able to finally talk to some of the Alabama teens who left on that plane and did not wait around for interrogation, said Cohen.

    Despite some reports to the contrary, Cohen said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been involved in the Holloway case since the first hours of the initial complaint and did remain on Aruba for several months, serving as observers and advisors to the local police.

    Six FBI agents from Miami arrived within 24 hours of Holloways disappearance.

    Aruba has been focused on finding Holloway from the outset, Cohen said, citing various government and private search and investigative efforts.

    He said that the call for a boycott of Aruba by the governors of Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia has had no effect on the investigation or on tourism to the island, a statement supported by Briesen.

    The U.S. South is one of our smaller markets, Briesen said.

    To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to[email protected].

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