Curaçao Takes Aim at the U.S. Market

Over the years, Curaçao's Dutch-flavored Caribbean hospitality has been a proven hit with European travelers. Europeans currently account for 40 percent of Curaçao's visitors. The U.S. market, at 25 percent, is a significant one for Curaçao, but look for the island to begin a fresh marketing blitz targeted toward corralling even more visitors from North America.  Stunning sea views from the balcony of the Avila Hotel

"We have a five-year tourism master plan in place that focuses on the North American market," says Clifton Walle, executive director, Curaçao Tourism Board. "Curaçao has so much to offer, much more than sun and sand. We have history and culture, great dining, our Jewish heritage, and our capital of Willemstad, which has been singled out for UNESCO World Heritage status."

Curaçao currently receives five percent of total U.S. visitors to the Caribbean. The island is targeting experienced travelers—those who have visited the Caribbean before. Curaçao is also bypassing mid-market travelers to reach out to those with $75,000 or more in household income. Walle observes that Curaçao is not a cheap product; that visitors are willing to pay a premium, but in doing so they insist on a quality product. "The upscale market is our main vertical market—we'll continue to focus on them," he says.

Walle notes that Curaçao targets several markets specifically. These include the dive market, gay/lesbian market, African-American market, groups and incentives, the Jewish market and Latino market.

An ærial view of the Lodge Kura Hulanda and Beach Club

"The Latino market out of the U.S. is an important one for us, because of our historical relationship with South America," says Walle. "In the `60s and `70s many of the parents of Latinos visited Curaçao. Our island has been influenced by South America—you can see it in our culture, cuisine and music."

Last November, Curaçao saw more arrivals from the West Coast than the East. The most important reason for the surge in visitors from the West Coast was the addition of the 5:30 p.m. flight on American Airlines, which cuts travel time to one day. Many of the West Coast visitors hailed from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, cities with significant gay populations. The Curaçao Tourist Board, with last year's inauguration of www.gaycuraçao.com, has been proactive in getting out the message that Curaçao is a gay-friendly destination. A Historic Hotel Spreads its Wings

Two of the major draws for the African-American market are the Museum Kura Hulanda, an anthropological museum that includes exhibits on the African slave trade and West African Empires; and Den Paradera, an herb garden that also presents performances of tambu, a traditional form of communication that originated when slaves rhythmically beat drums and hoes.

In a nod to the dive market, the island created a new annual event in 2006, the Curaçao Dive Festival. Held last May, the festival offered free registration, and there was also no charge for most seminars and clinics. There were fees for actual scheduled dives during the program.

Clifton Walle

"Within three years, we'll double the number of rooms we had in 2005 (to 6,000)," says Walle. "This will go far toward alleviating the island's tight situation in terms of room availability, with hotels and resorts averaging 83 percent occupancy."

There's hope that these new rooms will increase demand for airlift. "Hotels' rooms availability is a factor in attracting additional flights," says Walle. "As more hotel rooms come on line, we expect to see more flights in the winter of 2007-08." Talks are ongoing with several carriers, including U.S. Airways, Delta, United, JetBlue and Spirit. The new flight from American has proven to be successful; discussions are underway to get a second flight. Continental may expand to two flights a week. High Marks for Safety

In regard to low-cost carriers, Walle says, "Even luxury clients want to save money on airfare—they'd rather spend it at the destination."

Curaçao recently celebrated the grand opening of its new airport terminal, the first phase in a 30-year contract to develop and expand CuraçaoInternationalAirport. Phase one of the expansion also included adding two large interior gardens and a large landscaped exterior plaza, as well as expansions for aircraft parking, passport control, check-in and ticket sales, and administrative offices. Essential Links

"In the late `60s, Curaçao was the number-one destination in the Caribbean," says Billy Jonckheer, vice president, Curaçao Hotel and Tourism Association. "In the late `80s and `90s, the government neglected tourism to concentrate on other initiatives."

Jonckheer explains that the private sector stepped up to promote Curaçao's tourism, and significant changes were made. "From the beginning, we reached out to major chain hotels, to encourage them to build on Curaçao," says Jonckheer. "We were, frankly, looking for their help in marketing the destination."

Jonckheer notes that from January through April, Curaçao's hotels do very well, though there is a potential problem in not having enough rooms for the winter season. "Some guests are not getting the rooms they want," says Jonckheer. "Hyatt, scheduled to open in mid-2008, and Renaissance, set to open at the beginning of 2008, will address this shortage." He adds that groups are already approaching Hyatt to book. Jonckheer also notes that Westin is in preparations to build a hotel on Curaçao. "They're about 75 percent ready to start," he says.

The 350-room Hyatt Regency Curaçao is poised to become the largest hotel on the island and the first large hotel to open since the Sonesta (now a Marriott), which was completed in 1992. The hotel is part of the extensive Santa Barbara Plantation project, and will have a casual restaurant, fine dining establishment, spa, salon and fitness center. For entertainment, there will be a 5,800-square-foot casino, a multi-level pool, poolside grill, lounge, cabana area, tennis courts, and a Pete Dye-designed 18-hole championship golf course. The Hyatt Regency is planned to open summer 2008.

The Renaissance Curaçao Resort & Casino, a AAA, Four Diamond hotel, will have 240 deluxe guest rooms and suites and is scheduled to open in December 2007. Also part of the Renaissance complex is The Rif Fort, with more than eight restaurants, many retail boutiques, a six-screen cinema, Carnaval Casino, meeting areas, beach, boardwalk and park.

Last year, the Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa and Casino in the heart of Willemstad opened a sister property, the Lodge Kura Hulanda and Beach Club, 30 minutes from the CuraçaoHatoInternationalAirport. Many guests are choosing to combine two nights in the city at Hotel Kura Hulanda, with three nights at the beach at the lodge and beach club. Transportation is provided between the properties. Last July, the Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa and Casino opened its fully operational spa facility, with six treatment rooms, outdoor massages, and a sauna/steam room.

The Clarion International Curaçao opened last March, with 200 guest rooms and suites, meeting rooms with capacity of up to 1,500 people, and a gourmet catering service that can accommodate 4,500 people.

Also in 2006, the Hilton Curaçao completed a multi-phased renovation process, adding a new business center, executive floor and executive lounge.

Walle notes that in 2007, the Curaçao Tourist Board will host two travel agent fam/workshops. "In December, we'll conduct a roadshow in New York, which is the largest regional market for us," he says. For details, visit www.curaçao.com or contact the Curaçao Tourist Board Miami office at 305-285-0511, [email protected].

"The majority of Americans who come to Curaçao say it's the best-kept secret in the Caribbean,' says Walle. "But we don't want to remain a secret—we want to increase awareness of the island."