James Hepple is the new President and CEO of Aruba Hotel & Tourism Association, and one of the most experienced tourism professionals in the Caribbean. His last post was in Saint Lucia, where he held a key position for the Saint Lucia Tourism Board. He has served in tourism director positions with Trinidad & Tobago, Curacao, Bahamas, and with Trusthouse Forte Hotels in Bermuda. BTN met with him before Caribbean Marketplace 2010 to find out his thoughts on tourism in the region for the coming year.
BTN: What kind of year do you envisage for Aruba in 2010?
JH: Aruba performed relatively well in 2009 with overall visitor numbers down about 3% compared with a 10% decline for the Caribbean as a whole. However this was achieved by some stringent discounting of room rates with revenue per available room down close to 10% for our hotels. The expectation is more of the same for 2010 with demand holding but only because of ongoing discounting of room rates.
BTN: How important is the tourism sector to the overall economy of Aruba?
JH: According to recent numbers produced by the World Travel and Tourism Council tourist expenditures generate 67% of Aruba’s GDP and supports 79% of all employment so we are one of the most tourist dependent countries in the world.
BTN: How would you describe the Aruba travel experience? And what are its USPs?
JH: The primary USPs are an extremely-friendly and hospitable resident population, wonderful weather year round, spectacular white sand beaches and high-quality accommodations all leading to high visitor satisfaction ratings and high rates of return.
BTN: How does the role of the Aruba Hotel & Tourism Association (AHATA) fit in with Aruba’s tourism economy?
JH: AHATA represents the private sector of our tourism industry. We have 123 members of which just 30 are hotels so we work on behalf of many different tourism related businesses representing their interests to government. AHATA has also become proactive in certain marketing areas. For example we operate the Aruba Convention Bureau supported by the Aruba Tourism Authority and also take the lead in negotiating cooperative marketing support programmes with our tour operator partners, also supported by the ATA.
BTN: How would you describe your role at AHATA?
JH: As President and CEO my primary task is to translate the direction given from my Board of Directors into effective plans and programmes. AHATA is one of just a few associations in the region which generates funding for its own marketing programmes from a voluntary contribution of a room toll assessed by the hotels. My job is to ensure that those monies are spent effectively.
BTN: What are you hoping to achieve at this year’s Caribbean Marketplace?
JH: Our tour operator partners generate a very significant percentage of room nights and room revenues so we will be working hard to finalise mutually satisfactory co-operative marketing plans and programmes for 2010. We will also be meeting with new players who have shown interest in developing business to Aruba.
BTN: What in the way of plans, development or initiatives are currently underway in Aruba?
JH: A new Government was elected in September 2009 and is now looking at making some significant changes to improve the way Aruba is marketed overseas, so we are looking to some radical changes to be in place by the second half of 2010. These new plans are being developed at the moment but I am sure will be unveiled in the very near future.
BTN: How would you like Aruba’s tourism industry to evolve?
JH: The critical issue for our hotels, and for the destination as a whole, is to ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of our industry. Consequently we will continue to maintain a high quality product which offers good value for money and by so doing generates high levels of positive recommendations and repeat visits. The key will be to continue to invest in improving the quality of the experience, the infrastructure and service levels. We only have 4,600 hotel rooms and 3,900 timeshare units so we will never be a mass market destination.