Interview with Zulaika Mook
The volatility of the tourism sector was clearly emphasized by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the temporary -and sometimes permanent- closing of hotels in Curaçao, came the loss of thousands of direct jobs from hotel employees and indirect jobs at suppliers of goods and services. Curaçao’s tourism sector received a major blow this year and will take some time to fully recover. The Curaçao Tourist Board (CTB) tried to keep the tourists engaged during the lock down by hosting online events, such as virtual Happy Hour activities, a series of Dushi things to do at home, the Color Curaçao downloadable paintings www.curacao.com/colorcuracao , different 360 images, and now the Dushi Stay Reporter video series. These activities turned out to be very successful.
The virtual Happy Hours called Dushi Island Vibes presented a lineup of DJ’s from several popular Happy Hour locations on the island. Each DJ delivered a 30-minute set, taking followers on a virtual trip. This made for an awesome event. The event was broadcast live from the studio of a local radio station and showcased views of the popular Mambo Beach. The event counted on a reach of more than 8.000 views from all over the world and over 200 comments.
These out of the box activities help to reinforce Curaçao as the number one faraway vacation destination for the Netherlands. The promotion efforts have the desired effect and almost 3.000 stay-over tourists visited the island during the first 12 days after reopening the borders. Still, the COVID-19 experience shows the vulnerability of this sector. According to the Sector Director Zulaika Mook, when things go well in tourism, it is very good, but you can get hit unexpectedly by an external shock. “In tourism, you depend on people who have to take the decision to travel. This can change suddenly”.
According to the CTB, Curaçao had a total of 8,195 stay-over visitor arrivals since the borders reopened on July 1st. Eighty-three percent are traveling from Europe and 11% from the Caribbean region. The borders are open to only a select number of countries in Western Europe and 93% of the European visitors came from the Netherlands. The rest came from Germany and Belgium. From the Caribbean region, there were 907 stay-over visitors. There were 477 visitors from Bonaire, 328 from Aruba, and 93 from St. Maarten. According to the CTB the bookings for August so far are promising.
The COVID-19 experience shows the importance to diversify the economy. According to Mook Curaçao’s economy will not be properly served with a dependence on tourism of 60% or 80% as is the case in certain Caribbean countries. At the same time, she acknowledges that in the past, this sector did not get the necessary attention to enable its growth and increase its contribution to the GDP. When the other economic sectors started to under perform in 2018 and 2019, the importance of tourism to the economy increased consistently. “This opened the eyes of the government and proves that if we follow a good strategic plan and invest accordingly, the touristic sector can grow even more”. The marketing of Curaçao as a tourist destination has been the focus since the master plan for tourism was developed for 2015 – 2020. Curaçao is currently working on the new strategic plan and will now emphasize a destination development plan. The master plan of 2015-2020 was focused mainly on the tourism marketing of Curaçao. The emphasis was on the markets that would be targeted and what could be expected. A big shift was notable in 2019 in the rise of North America as an important market. Before that, the main market was Europe, mostly the Netherlands and Germany. Venezuela, previously the 2nd most important market, on the other hand, dropped substantially after the closing of the borders. To give a comparison, in 2018 Curaçao received approximately 100.000 Venezuelan tourists. In 2019 that amount dropped to 7.000, a plunge of almost 93%. Venezuela was replaced by the USA in the 2nd place, but with the COVID-19 effects, everything has changed again. It is to be seen how the markets of the USA, Canada, and Latin America will develop. USA, Colombia, and Brazil, the main ones are currently going through some rough times.
The master plan 2015-2020 focused more on the target markets and the promotion for these markets. The new to be created destination development plan will complement that aspect with the further development of the touristic product. Curaçao is now going to emphasize the development of its tourist product for the different markets.
The master plan showed that besides more quantity Curaçao should focus more on quality, meaning tourists that spend more. This will have a bigger impact on the economy. According to the analysis, North American tourists are the ones that best match that expectation. The attention is now also on experiential tourism. These visitors want more of an authentic product. They want to be more involved with the community. They want to see more of the culture and history of the country and are sensitive to the hospitality of the people. To be able to serve those customers, these should be products that fit that vision. An advantage is that this creates more opportunities for local entrepreneurship. Besides the intensive preparation of the tourism worker to meet the ‘experiential tourism’ expectation, it is also necessary to have the desired products. Such as bed and breakfast projects, but also rentals of bikes, quads, and the organization of tours. Culinary projects such as eating with the locals are also popular in experiential tourism. The Government wants to create new platforms where the small business owner can offer its products and is trying to structure this to guarantee a high quality. These platforms should give local startup entrepreneurs the possibility to work on their product or service in such a way that they can create a product of good quality with the proper organization and also get a place where they can offer this product. The idea is to have platforms where the services can be offered jointly. The MEO ‘MiNegoshi’ team offers support to the small business owner that wants to make use of the opportunities of tourism development. This unit is specially tailored to help the small business owner and the startup entrepreneur with their business needs.
The creative sector, also known as the Orange Economy, includes several sub-sectors. Such as film, music, art & craft, museums, media, and design. To have more success and be able to gain more advantage from the integration of the sectors, the focus is on the sub-sectors that are linked to tourism and have a lot of value for this sector. Besides that, activities in the performing arts section such as music, dance, arts, and craft can be further developed into export products.
The tourists appreciate local shows and would like to exchange with the locals about the history, the local food, etc. which creates the possibility to commercialize this sub-sector. According to Mook, a lot of talented people engage in these activities as a hobby. They make nice things and it would be good to develop this into a profession and create an income. MEO is now pushing this transition in the creative sector and tries to link it as much as possible to the development of tourism to generate more jobs.
Transnational education basically addresses the commercial area of education and is a new economic sector that the MEO is developing. There is a lot of interest in it from international educational institutions. Some are well-known names, others are new. The rule is that the institution should be accredited. Most offer programs at the graduate level. The accreditation should be issued by an officially recognized accreditation body such as the AAC in Curaçao, but the institution is free to select which one it wants to use.
To be accepted as a transnational institution, 80% or more of the students should be international. The local student should not be the main target, although 20% of the places can be filled by locals. If the institution wants to register more locals it should apply for a permit of recognition of the Ministry of Education and in that case, will not be considered a transnational institution.
Curaçao is now preparing a law and policy to regulate higher education. At this moment the so-called Charter set-up is being used. This means that the school or university can request a permit to establish and run in Curaçao as an investor. A special interdepartmental Committee will evaluate the request.
There is a website with information for the students about the schools, housing, permits and other relevant information for their stay on the island. The universities will often help them with that process. One of the considerations is to introduce a student visa to ease the application and permit process for the students.
The spin-off of attracting international universities lies in the fact that the participants become so-called ‘permanent’ tourists that will stay on the island for a period longer than one year. The transnational education service is considered an important form of export of services. The intention of the MEO is to attract renowned educational institutions. These will draw more students. In many cases, they already have their clients and take care of their own marketing. The Medical Schools with their students from India are a typical example.
A maximum of 20% of the students can be local. These students are not eligible for local study financing. By allowing the possibility of a ‘limited’ number of local students, these universities can offer interesting opportunities as opposed to studying abroad. There local specialization possibilities for students that want to major in for instance film and audiovisual media are limited. The establishment of a transnational university can create the opportunity for local students that want to specialize in these areas and can help to realize the knowledge economy.