Agent program boosts Aruba's recovery effort

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WEEHAWKEN, N.J. -- Aruba officials have more than 1,000 travel agents enrolled in the Aruba Certified Expert (ACE) program and hope to double that number this year, said Marcial F. Ibarra, North American director of the Aruba Tourism Authority.

Ibarra said agents are offered plenty of incentives to complete the ACE program, a home-study course launched two years ago, including advance notice of special deals, value-added promotions and fam trip invitations.

Agents completing the course also are eligible to earn continuing education units from the Institute of Certified Travel Agents.

Ibarra noted that agents will be able to take the course later this year via a recently launched Web site, at http://agents.aruba.com.

The site eventually will feature information on promotions, packages, events and news.

Both the ACE program and the Web site -- along with a growing cruise business -- are aiding Aruba's recovery from the effects of Sept. 11.

The tourism authority had bumped up its tourist effort -- and tour operator business -- after Sept. 11 by offering visitors booked on packages $200 in "Aruba On Us" spending money to use on various goods and services.

The Natural Pool near Daimari on the island's northern coast is one of many sites on Aruba where guests can swim and snorkel. The promotion was so successful that the offer was terminated a few days ahead of schedule because the subsidy sum had been exhausted, Ibarra said.

However, he added, occupancy figures still remain behind last winter.

Other positive signs include US Airways' January increase to daily service from Charlotte, N.C., and American's new schedule from Boston providing five flights per week.

U.S. arrivals, which annually account for 64% of the island's visitors, numbered more than 440,000 last year, a 2% decline from 2000.

Visitors from the East, Midwest and West average a 7.2 day-stay compared with Southern guests, who stay 5.8 days.

Also helping to boost arrivals are several value-added promotions, such as "One Cool Honeymoon," in which participating properties feature free champagne or wine, souvenir gifts and a free hotel night the following year.

Another such program is "One Cool Family Vacation," which provides free accommodations at 14 resorts for up to two children ages 12 and younger, free breakfast, kids' activities and a family gift.

Both plans include discounts or free offers on car rentals, entertainment, gambling, excursions, horseback riding, scuba lessons and merchandise.

Ibarra said the value-added offers "make Aruba competitive with other destinations, although the vacation experience itself is highly-rated by agents and travelers."

He cited the ASTA/Fodor's Hot Spot Survey for winter 2002, in which agents ranked Aruba the most popular Caribbean destination.

Aruba took first place among Caribbean destinations in the U.S. Consumer Travel Survey 2001, published by Travel Weekly last September, where it also ranked among the world's top 10 destinations.

Ibarra said the island's location -- 15 miles north of Venezuela and away from the hurricane zone -- is a big selling point. Another is the U.S. Customs pre-clearance service in Aruba's airport.

Weddings for nonresidents now are allowed, and hotels are reporting strong demand for wedding packages, Ibarra said.

Activities cover the spectrum

WEEHAWKEN, N.J. -- Outdoor enthusiasts, gear up for action: Aruba's activities and events take place on land and in, on and under the water.

Popular with duffers is the 18-hole, par-71 Tierra del Sol golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones II.

Daily greens fees range from $68 to $133, depending upon season and time of play.

Scuba divers and snorkelers have a choice of 11 dive operators which offer excursions to a number of sites, such as the Natural Pool near Daimari on the island's northern coast.

Windsurfers will find six specialty firms, as well as the Hi-Winds World Challenge, a major annual windsurfing tournament, set this year for June 27 to July 2 at Fisherman Huts near the Aruba Marriott Resort & Casino on Palm Beach.

The Aruba Jazz & Latin Festival will take place June 28 and 29. The site has not yet been announced. - H.M.

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