Travel Agent recently spoke with some of the major Caribbean tour operators to see which islands were off to strong starts in 2007, which ones were gaining steam and whether the passport restrictions passed in January really had the effect most tourism officials said it would. We found that most made the same observation: Aruba is once again the same force, if not a stronger one, that it was before the 2005 disappearance of American tourist Natalee Holloway.
The tragedy's widespread media coverage turned people off of
the island. In fact, Ray Mathes, vice president of revenue for Apple Vacations,
says 2005 and 2006 were the only two years he can remember when Aruba took a
dip in bookings, with interest in the island having risen steadily pretty much
every year before that. But most operators agree that travelers are now looking
at the fact that there have been no major incidents at all in Aruba
since 2005, proving that the island is as safe as tourism officials were
claiming it was at the time that the May 30, 2005, mystery began.
"I think when people think of that incident, they
associate it with crime in Aruba," Mathes
says. "And we know that isn't exactly fair, since Aruba is probably one of
the safest islands in the Caribbean." He
says Apple Vacations has already seen a 15 percent increase in bookings there
from this time last year, an indication that the island's popularity has
John Hanratty, chief marketing officer for Travel
Impressions, says that the company has already seen double-digit growth in Aruba bookings from this time last year. "There is a
definitely a rebound in Aruba," Hanratty says, noting that Aruba saw a significant decrease in bookings not only
during the year of the tragedy, but also the year after. "This is the
first year we are seeing Aruba come back to
what it was. I think it has died down and people are realizing that this was an
isolated incident. It is definitely strong again and is not expected to go
anywhere anytime soon."
Doug Knapp, general manager of Delta Vacations, says it was
surprising how long it took for Aruba to get
back to where it was prior to 2005. Knapp says that while he attended Caribbean
Marketplace 2007, he walked along the beaches of Aruba at night and thought how
silly everyone's fear of Aruba actually was.
"I felt safe; I felt like this was on of the safest places I've been to in
the Caribbean," he says, noting Aruba is
seeing a high single-digit increase from last year.
"I walked by the same area where she was supposedly
abducted and I couldn't believe it was the same place. I couldn't see how
anything bad could happen there. I'm happy to see that many people are
realizing that again."
Lyndsey North, associate marketing manager for Funjet
Vacations, says that since 2005, getting people to go Aruba
was difficult, but getting those who visited to return was easy. This is why Aruba is expected to continue flourishing for years to
come: People visiting now will return in the future.
"This is really the first year that we are seeing our
numbers [for Aruba] return to normal," says North, noting that Aruba is
currently one of Funjet Vactions' top five most popular destinations overall.
"Aruba has a lot to offer, making it a
destination with a large number of repeat clients. Aruba's
location outside the hurricane belt, great dining options and practically
perfect weather makes it a popular choice."
The Passport Effect
On January 23, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative,
commonly known as the passport issue, went into effect, requiring all U.S. citizens traveling by air between the U.S. and Canada,
Mexico, Central and South
America, the Caribbean and Bermuda to have a
passport. Since then, operators say bookings went up significantly in the U.S.
Virgin Islands, which was not affected by the initiative.
Knapp says that Delta has already seen double-digit
increases in St. Thomas and St.
Croix from last year. While he contends that the passport issue
hasn't had a negative impact on travel to the Caribbean, he does admit that it
most likely increased attention to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. After all, for as many times as the passport
issue was written about or talked about, it was also mentioned in the same
conversation that the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico
"The U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas/St. John/St.
Croix) and San Juan, Puerto
Rico, are also great choices right now, since they don't require
passports," North says. "The U.S.V.I. offers travelers a shopper's
paradise with it's variety of duty-free shopping."
Hanratty also says that St. Thomas
and St. Croix are looking at double-digit
increases from this time last year. He also attributes the passport requirement
to that trend.
Mathes, however, says that Apple Vacations has seen an
effect in last-minute bookings. Although it was more evident at the time the
restriction started being enforced, he notes that Apple Vacations is still
seeing a "significant" drop in bookings made up to a week in advance.
"I don't think the passport restrictions have really affected the Caribbean as a whole that much, since many people either
have passports or were informed about the restrictions," he says.
"But we are seeing a drop in last-minute bookings, and it really started
right around when the restrictions were enforced, so I think the passport thing
did have something to do with that."
specifically Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril, continues to be most operators'
top-booked Caribbean destination. Operators
such as Apple Vacations, Travel Impressions and Funjet Vacations all attribute Jamaica's influx in hotel product to a stranglehold
on the Caribbean market.
has recently experienced new hotel growth in all areas of the island, giving
travelers a choice of properties to fit all budgets," North says. "Jamaica offers
many experiences for travelers, depending on the areas they choose to stay in.
For example, Montego Bay offers many
activities and a bustling nightlife, Negril boasts fabulous beaches and Ocho
Rios has a good mix of natural beauty and entertainment."
But the island should be looking over its shoulder, as the Dominican Republic
continues to draw more travelers every year. Specifically, Punta Cana remains a
strong force, gaining momentum, while Puerto Plata has been seeing some
increases as well, Mathes says.
The modest growth in Puerto Plata is the first evidence that
ongoing multi-million dollar upgrades there are paying off. Mathes says the
addition of some well-known hotel products has drawn more interest there, but
expects it to be more of a force by 2008.