Since the disappearance of Natalee Holloway on May 30, 2005, in Aruba, there have been several calls for boycotts against the island, including from Alabama’s governor. While starting to research the effects of this boycott, three things were readily apparent. First, Arubans are upset that boycotts were declared. Second, Aruba has a vested interest in making sure no such boycotts affect them, especially from the U.S., which accounts for about two-thirds of Aruba’s visitors. Third, Aruba is a country that primarily lives on the tourism industry.
By minimizing a tarnished public image and reporting record-breaking tourism, Aruba has been swaying public opinion in its favor to be seen as more popular than ever, thus attracting even more tourists and countering the boycott against them. That does not, however, negate Aruba’s responsibility to report accurately, especially when Aruba is asking the general public to believe what it says in the Natalee Holloway case.
Aruba’s official tourism website, www.Aruba.com, touts how Aruba is safe and a wonderful place to visit, and that is not being questioned. This report is strictly looking at tourist data and possible effects from an Aruba boycott.
One article appearing on the Aruba.com website is from former U.S. congressman and now talk-show host Bob Barr titled “Aruba Boycott a Lost Cause,” in which Barr called this consumer action “not a real boycott.” In his article, Barr stated, “Only the president can direct that U.S. citizens, whether they hail from Alabama or Maine, are not permitted to travel to a particular event or country.” While that is true, this was not a government action, rather a consumer action by people who are upset at how the Holloway case is being handled. Tourists do occasionally get killed or go missing, but that is not the issue. The issue is how Aruba has been handling the case, which is what sparked a consumer boycott.
In a USAToday article dated Oct. 30, 2005, Myrna Jansen, the managing director of the Aruba Tourism Authority was quoted as saying, “Now everybody knows Aruba,” boasting that Aruba is more popular than ever, and even claiming a 10 percent increase in tourism, much of it from repeat tourists. Just about a week later, in a Nov. 8, 2005, article posted at Aruba.com, Jansen claimed Aruba’s reputation “remains intact” and claimed increased U.S. visitors and higher hotel occupancy forecasts over the next year.
The Belize Tourism Board has reported a drop in Aruba tourism from 2000 until 2003, with an increase in 2004 for both air and cruise ship visitors of about 80,000, a significant increase after years of steady drops. While trying to obtain more information about current hotel occupancy rates, I discovered something strange: While Aruba hotels have previously reported their occupancy rates in a timely manner, no such information was available for any Aruba hotels over the last year, thus raising questions as to what the actual occupancy rates are.
In 2006, Aruba backtracked from reports of double-digit tourism increases. In an article at Aruba.com dated March 31, 2006, Aruba reported a modest 0.6 percent overall 2005 tourism increase, which is a far cry from the steady 9-10 percent numbers stated earlier in the year. If all the reports are true, then Aruba must have had a sudden tourism crash in the peak winter tourist season, but that does not make sense if we are to believe the 9 and 10 percent numbers Aruba originally reported. If that really did happen, Aruba would have had a massive sudden drop in tourism, leaving hotels at 50 percent or less occupancy during the peak winter tourism season, which would have made headline news in the travel industry – but that did not happen. The numbers simply do not add up.
The sudden tourism reporting reversal was a result of a then soon to be released report that Aruba officials apparently tried to reconcile their reports to match, yet did not fully expect.
A May 15, 2006, press release by Aruba’s main bank, the Centrale Bank Van Aruba, states, “The Centrale Bank van Aruba (the Bank) mentions in its Bulletin of the fourth quarter of 2005 that available information indicate a reduction in business activities in the fourth quarter of 2005, mainly brought about by a dwindling performance in the tourism sector. According to the Business Perception Survey conducted by the Bank, businesses reported being less optimistic about the current state of the economy, and even pessimistic about the short-term economic outlook. The tourism sector showed a negative outcome. The number of stay-over visitors and their nights spent on the island fell by 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively. This resulted in a 2 percent decline in gross tourism receipts, while the hotel occupancy rate recorded a 2.2 percentage points decline to 77.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2005.”
While Aruba stated a less than stellar fourth quarter, the overall economic data reported by the bank does not match the overall tourism numbers.
A 2.2 percent occupancy rate decline may not sound like much, but if that was only in the fourth quarter, it could not possibly be from a single quarter when the same report states “the net international reserves of the monetary sector decreased … and were … 9 percent lower than a year earlier.” In other words, a 2.2 percent decline from a 10 percent gain would still mean a 7.8 percent overall increase, yet the bank reported an overall economic slowdown. In fact, the bank reported that 2005 was a bad overall tourism year in Aruba. Since Aruba’s economy is almost totally based on tourism, Aruba is clearly in a recession that has nothing to do with the economic growth in the rest of the free-market world.
Aruba is clearly concerned with its image, and Aruba’s bank is primarily concerned how their businesses are doing and making money. Additionally, banks are notorious for reporting their financial status accurately. The more reliable numbers, therefore, are from the bank as opposed to public-relations people.
While Aruba has had an increase in tourism for several years, there is a definite decline in tourism since the disappearance of Natalee Holloway. While there is no information as to which countries people not going to Aruba are from, and with the U.S. being Aruba’s primary tourist source that now has a consumer boycott against Aruba, one can easily conclude the drop in tourism is from the U.S. Even with Aruba’s campaigns to increase tourism from other countries, Aruba has still not compensated for the loss of U.S. tourist dollars. Thus, the Aruba boycott is working.
Art Nittskoff, the chief travel agent for Gamble America who specializes in vacation travel reported that although he has never sold many Aruba vacations because there are no direct flights from Cleveland to Aruba, people he spoke to in the travel industry reported no perceivable change in Aruba travel over the past year. This would be consistent with both Aruba not having a 10 percent increase in tourism, as well as a 2.2 percent decline in travel to Aruba, as small percentage changes on a per-travel-agency level may not be noticed. A 10 percent change in any direction, however, would certainly be noticed.
Aruba tourism officials clearly overstated its tourism statistics, then failed to backtrack enough to match its own central bank’s reports. With many of Aruba’s statements regarding the disappearance of Natalee Holloway being questioned by her family, one has to wonder why Aruba would release any questionable numbers, yet that is exactly what Aruba appears to have done.