In a grim season for Caribbean tourism, an island just north of Venezuela stands out: Hotel rooms are scarce and discounts unavailable.
That’s largely because Curacao is crowded with Venezuelans, many fleeing their country’s spiraling inflation and currency controls for a Dutch Caribbean island best known for its diving opportunities and historic city center, a U.N. World Heritage site.
While other destinations are slashing prices and laying off resort workers, officials in Curacao have been trying to find private apartments for surplus visitors.
“We’re doing very, very well,” Billy Jonckheer, vice president of the Curacao Hospitality and Tourism Association, said Tuesday. “Right now, you won’t find a room on the island.”
Curacao officials project 2008 visitor growth of 30 percent to about 390,000 people. The latest statistics from the Caribbean Tourism Organization show that rate would be the highest in the region at a time when the global economic crisis and airline flight cutbacks are eroding the key industry.
Cuba is also one of the region’s bright spots, with the country predicting a record 2.34 million visitors, largely because the global financial woes have been softer on Canada, its top source of visitors.
But others are struggling.
Puerto Rico, for example, expects a decline of at least 3 percent in the number of its visitors, said Clarisa Jimenez, president of the island’s Hotel and Tourism Association. The Dominican Republic and the Bahamas have also recently reported decreases in tourists.
The Netherlands is the largest source of tourists for Curacao. But Venezuela is second and rising fast, expected to double from last year and reach 100,000, Jonckheer said. The U.S. is third.
Curacao is a magnet for Venezuelans because it’s close — only about 40 miles — and its shops are filled with duty-free merchandise that is much more expensive at home. Flights are plentiful to Caracas and other cities, but they are almost all packed these days.
Inflation in Caracas is running at more than 32 percent and currency controls imposed by President Hugo Chavez in 2003, aimed at stemming capital flight, require Venezuelans to obtain dollars through a government agency for purposes including travel abroad.
Venezuelans are allowed up to $5,000 a year on their credit cards and $600 cash for travel. Travelers get the money at the official rate of 2.15 strong bolivars to the dollar. But on the black market in Venezuela, U.S. dollars have been selling for more than twice that. (Curacao uses guilders, the Dutch currency, but U.S. dollars are widely circulated and acceptable everywhere.)
Jonckheer and others say some Venezuelans buy merchandise in Curacao, where dollars are used widely, to sell or exchange back home on the black market. But he doubts it is the primary attraction for the visitors.
“Of course, they come for cash. I’m not going to deny it. But they come here to do a lot of shopping and other stuff. If it does happen, it’s not the norm,” he said.
Tourist Ruben Sermin denied cash is the attraction.
“This place is the best. It has lots of culture, lots of beaches,” said Sermin, a 28-year-old accountant, as he and his girlfriend waited to board a half-hour flight back to Caracas after a four-day trip. “It’s a small island, but there is a lot here.”
The two countries have long had close links. Venezuelan tourism spiked to Curacao in the 1980s, then fell when the South American country’s currency collapsed. And Venezuela’s state-owned oil company runs Curacao’s Isla oil refinery, the largest employer in Curacao.
The U.S. also has ties to the island of 140,000. For nearly 10 years, the U.S. has stationed military planes at the Willemstad airport for multinational counter-drug missions in the Caribbean. American officials say the operation contributes about $25 million to the local economy.
Nelson Pierre, a member of the 21-member governing council, thinks the U.S. military should no longer be allowed to use the airport to ensure good relations with Chavez, but he says only one other council member shares his opinion and the lease is likely to be extended when it expires in 2011.
Curacao is expected to double the number of hotel rooms to 8,000 over the next two years and local officials say they are poised for more growth. But they also know they must market to other countries.
“Venezuela is a market that can fall at any time,” Jonckheer said.