SAN JUAN -- Tourism officials in Aruba, while still shattered by the disappearance of Alabama teen Natalee Holloway last summer and the subsequent worldwide media coverage, especially by cable news networks that continue to allege improprieties in the governments handling of the investigation, announced a number of initiatives designed to propel its tourism industry forward in 2006.

Our name recognition has never been higher, for better or worse, said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of the Aruba Hotel & Tourism Authority (AHATA). Despite the publicity surrounding the tragic disappearance of Natalee Holloway and the events that have followed, 2005 was a successful year for Aruba in terms of visitor figures 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. market through October.

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

Briesen outlined several projects in the works on the island:

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

  • A $60 million expansion plan at Queen Beatrix International 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;

  • The continuation of Arubas successful ACE (Aruba Certified Expert) program for agents.
  • An announcement regarding the purchase of the 152-room Bushiri Hotel, which has been closed and on the market for several years, is expected next month, according to Briesen said. Several groups are interested in the property, and we expect that negotiations for its purchase will be completed in February. The new property will have 350 rooms and a casino.

    Aruba had its ups and downs in 2005, but we are looking for a growth of 14% to 15% in tourism numbers and revenues in 2006, Briesen said. Safety and hospitality have been the pillars of our tourism industry and will continue to be so.

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

    Cohen, 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, 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, he 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 (FBI) 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, who said, the U.S. South is one of our smaller markets.

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

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