WILLEMSTAD, Curacao -- "Calling all Yankees" seems to be the motto of late here on Curacao.

That's because North American visitors currently account for less than 20% of all travelers to Curacao, and "we want to expand that market," according to James Hepple, executive director of the Curacao Tourist Board.

This year, traffic from North America grew by 8% in six of the eight months from January through August; officials said they expect the overall visitor increase will reach 4% by year's end compared with 2002.

"Curacao is a favorite with Europeans, South Americans and many Caribbean residents," Hepple said. "We want more visitors from the U.S. and Canada."

Curacao averages 220,000 stayover visitors a year and 300,000 cruise passengers.

"We are not a mass market," Hepple said. "However, we would like to see our 40,000 North American visitors grow to 80,000 a year by tapping into niche markets such as Jewish heritage and gay travel."

Hepple cited the latest survey in Conde Nast Traveler, which asked readers to indicate any interest in visiting Curacao.

"In the spring of 2001, Curacao wasn't on the list," Hepple said. "A year later, 3% of those surveyed said they were interested in visiting Curacao; by the spring of 2003, that figure had risen to 6%."

He added that "there is a lack of awareness about Curacao in the marketplace, but that is beginning to change."

Curacao is looking to double arrivals from North America, now only 20% of its business. Above, the capital city of Willemstad. A new immigration card asks departing visitors to comment about their stay in Curacao; since September, 10,000 visitors have filled out the card, and 97% said they would recommend Curacao to others.

The card also asks visitors to compare their actual on-island experience with their expectations before they arrived.

"Those answers have been very positive," Hepple said.

Curacao's tourism budget for marketing and promoting the destination in North American and European markets has increased substantially, thanks to project assistance from the Dutch government, according to Hepple.

This winter, Gogo Worldwide Vacations is running a nonstop charter to Curacao from Boston from Christmas through mid-April; Apple Vacations West began a seasonal Chicago-Curacao operation last month.

Hotel development is keeping pace with the new tourism awareness. The 100-room Hotel Kura Hulanda, the historic 18th-century village complex within Willemstad, is adding 17 rooms and opening a casino and the Anne Frank Museum.

Also in Willemstad, the 196-room Hilton Curacao (formerly the Sheraton) completes a $5 million renovation this month, and the Curacao Howard Johnson Plaza is adding 25 rooms.

The World Trade Center's $20 million renovation soon will be complete; there are plans to add a 200-room hotel within the complex, with completion projected for next summer.

More than 12,000 travel agents will be courted by Curacao tourism officials at trade shows and in sales calls next year, Hepple said.

For information regarding the destination, visit www.curacao-tourism.com.

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

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