Operators: Aruba Returns as a Serious Force

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. Sailboats on the beach in Aruba

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 returned.

The most-booked Caribbean destination is Jamaica, according to operators we surveyed

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 weren't affected.

"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."

Top Destinations

Jamaica, 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.

"Jamaica 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.

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