I have read several releases recently from the ATA that were published and several other news media suggesting that local hotels should be aware of fundamental shifts in travel, that everyone in Aruba knew that there would be a sharp drop in the number of Venezuelans staying in hotels and basically that the hotels should wake up to the realities of life.
I would like to clarify to the ATA, that as an industry upon which 90% of Arubans depend for their way of life, we need to row together in one direction and that the ATA should not say to the hotels “I told you so”.
Without going into details, allow me to say that the ATA took over the AHATA marketing fund in 2010 and it behooves the ATA as the primary controller of the destination’s marketing funds to stay in tune with all of the changes going on the travel world and to adjust to those new realities. The sector has asked for contingency plans to avoid the expected drop in traditional visitors from Venezuela from as far back as 2013. Again, about a year ago, we wrote an extensive proposal asking the ATA to diversify our sources of business and to offset any drop in arrivals from South America, as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela were experiencing growing economic hardship. As a sector we offered several alternatives. Since then the Colombian business has also suffered as a result of the decline in value of its currency.
I find the statement about the increase of US visitors misleading. Let me explain why. We need look back a few years and take a long term view. The share of visitors from the USA peaked at 74% in 1985 but through most of the 1990s the share fell between 53% and 58% only exceeding 60% in 1999. The share peaked again at 73% in 2004 but has fallen back consistently since then to the 54% we saw in 2014. So our US business as a proportion of our overall arrivals has fallen from 73% to 54% in just ten years and any recent growth is making little impact on this number.
I personally find it a bit odd that it is only now the ATA starts explaining the current situation as being the result of shifts in business rather than telling us what has been done to ameliorate the loss of Venezuelan hotel stays and what kinds of steps are and were taken to redirect our marketing efforts to prevent or at least reduce the impact of such losses.
The last few years we were told of record arrivals and of having achieved over one million visitors as if more visitors is better or that quantity rather than quality is the goal.
At the same time we must face the fact that our product is mature. Many of our hotels are more than 20 years old and many of our associates have worked in the industry for decades. There are numerous new destinations out there with new hotels and a young energetic workforce anxious to steal our customers. It is a personal concern of mine that we do not appear to be providing the quality experience we once did. Perhaps our recent success has led to complacency, perhaps we are not as caring as we once were.
As a result we now face a serious issue. As a sector we committed to attempting to attract a higher spending, more affluent traveler, we committed to achieving a higher REVPAR each year while we warned the authorities that this will also take some adjustments from the government side as well. A REVPAR committee came up with many recommendations but as far as I am aware not much has happened in implementing these necessary recommendations.
As I previously said we are all in this together. The sector is too important for us not to work together. Let us move forward with implementing the recommendations of the revpar committee. Let us agree on how best to address the challenges stemming from the decline in Venezuelan hotel traffic. Let us together work towards continuing to diversify our markets. And let us work together to address our service issues.
Finally let me comment on another related matter. A commentator recently alleged that the CEO of AHATA, Jim Hepple, was in the employ of Eduardo de Veer and was working on his instructions. As immediate past Chairman of AHATA let me say that nothing the CEO did was without the full approval of the 15 Directors of the Board of AHATA and that to think otherwise is just plain wrong.
Our industry is too significant to be the subject of these tensions. Speaking personally I hope we can come together to address our mutual concerns and to provide a sustainable and viable tourism sector to support all Arubans.