Aruba sets sights on maintaining business boom

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ORANJESTAD, Aruba -- The future's so bright on Aruba, the locals say they need shades.

And with additional airlift this winter from both scheduled and charter airlines, a litany of hotel renovations online and a packed festival calendar, that rosy outlook can only continue.

This year has been sunny, too, on the Netherlands Antilles island, which is set well outside the hurricane belt.

Edison Briesen, minister of tourism, described 2003 as "one of Aruba's best years ever."

"Business began picking up a year ago September, when 68% of all arrivals that month were from the U.S.," he said. "This market has increased steadily ever since, [and] we will end up this year slightly ahead of last year."

The Aruba Tourism Authority (ATA) reported that travel through mid-November was up 6.3% overall from 2002, with an approximately 15% rise in year-to-date visitors from the U.S. each month in June, July and August, and -- according to the latest findings -- a shade more than 16% growth in October.

"It's a combination of everything: economic recovery, the fact that Aruba's perceived as a very safe destination and the fact we have a lot to do here," according to Marcial Ibarra, director for North America at the ATA.

"And, during hurricane season, agents are telling clients to go to Aruba -- it's safe there," he added. "That's helped, too. It's not just one thing."

Ibarra also credited the ATA's growing roster of Aruba Certified Expert (ACE) destination specialist agents for the growth.

"The program is really kicking off, and we have close to 2,500 agents now," he said.

The ATA recently instituted a sales reporting system that enables it to track ACE agents' performance and productivity.

"We can see what we can do to help ACE agents who don't produce and reward the ones who are beating the targets," Ibarra said.

Something in the air

Getting sufficient airlift to spur arrivals growth is a constant necessity for Caribbean islands.

But Aruba's an airlift winner this winter, as its "airline partners have recognized increased demand and stepped up their services," Briesen said.

New flights include US Airways' Saturday nonstop service from Boston and a second Saturday flight from Charlotte, N.C., launching Feb. 14; United's seasonal Saturday flight from Washington from Dec. 20 through April 17; and Sun Country Airlines' Saturday charter flight from Minneapolis from Jan. 24 through April 10.

In addition, Briesen pointed out that American's new daily nonstop from Los Angeles to San Juan, slated to begin Dec. 19, "will boost our West Coast market by offering travelers a much quicker connection to Aruba from San Juan on American Airlines or American Eagle."

American also offers daily flights from New York (Ken-nedy) and Miami and four weekly flights from Boston, while US Airways flies daily from Philadelphia and Cleveland and United offers Saturday flights from Chicago and Washington (Dulles).

Other carriers serving Aruba from the U.S. include ATA, with Saturday service from Chicago (Midway); Continental, with a daily flight from Newark and up to three weekly flights from Houston (Bush); Delta's daily Atlanta service and two weekend flights from Kennedy, as well as a number of charter flights from 10 gateways.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Aruba hotels are in the midst of renovations, crafting new packages -- or are simply lapping up the accolades.

For example, the Wyndham Aruba Beach Resort and Casino recently won a AAA Four Diamond Award for 2003, while the Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort earned a third diamond from the organization.

Meanwhile, the family-friendly La Cabana became more welcoming to meetings and incentives travelers thanks to installation of resortwide wireless Internet access, available 24/7 for a charge of $15 to $18 per day.

The Manchebo Beach Resort instituted its all-inclusive Club Pega meal plan, good at all resort eateries; guests staying at least four nights also can enjoy one dinner off-site at restaurants belonging to the Aruba Gastronomic Association.

The all-inclusive Divi and Tamarijn Aruba Beach Resorts are putting together new golf packages in anticipation of the spring opening of the nine-hole The Links at Divi Aruba golf course this spring.

Add-on Divi and Tamarijn Aruba Golf packages include three nine-hole rounds or three 18-hole rounds with a free video analysis and one round in the weekly Divi Tournament.

Per-person prices -- not inclusive of room rates -- are $120 for the three nine-hole rounds plan and $265 for the three 18-hole plan from April 1 to 20, or $96 and $188, respectively, from May 1 to Dec. 24.

Festive atmosphere

Two of Aruba's biggest events -- its Beach Festival in May and its Music Festival in October -- already have generated interest and bookings.

And several hotels and tour operators will feature packages geared to the 50th anniversary of Aruba's underappreciated Carnival celebrations, which will run from Jan. 3 to Feb. 25.

The partying comes to a head on Feb. 22, with the 50th Aruba Grand Carnival Parade through the streets of Oranjestad and winds down on Feb. 25 with the burning of the symbolic King Momo effigy.

"It doesn't have the name recognition of Brazil's or Trinidad's events, but we have a big Carnival," said Ibarra. "And although we haven't really promoted it, it's during February, and we're packed anyway."

Aruban events such as the beach and music festivals are becoming so popular that visitors now are booking rooms a year in advance, Ibarra added.

Not that the island is all play and no work; in fact, Aruba has been selected as the venue for the Caribbean Tourism Organization's annual Sustainable Tourism Conference next spring.

For information on Aruba itself or the Aruba Certified Expert program, contact the ATA at www.aruba.com or (800) TO-ARUBA.

To contact reporters Gay Nagle Myers or Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected] or [email protected].

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