Why Everybody's Dying To Go To This Caribbean Island

Yahoo Travel - Sid Lispey

As winter approaches, everyone knows the Caribbean is going to be a hot destination. But one island in particular stands out as one of the hottest.

Aruba, long considered a prime tourist destination, is in the middle of a Caribbean boom. According to the CaribbeanTourism Organization, Aruba had a banner travel year in 2014 with a record 1.07 million visitors, a 9.5 percent increase over the previous year.

This year, Aruba is on the verge of an encore. "After receiving a record number of annual visitors in 2014, [the Aruba Tourism Authority] set an aggressive goal for an 11.5% increase in 2015 and is on track to surpass that goal," ATA CMO Sanju Luidens tells Yahoo Travel. In the first half of 2015, the island has experienced a 16.2 percent increase in tourist stopover arrivals — the largest growth of any Caribbean destination.

"It has just been a very strong destination," Dan Marmontello of the vacation booking site CheapCaribbean.com tells Yahoo Travel. He says his site's Aruba bookings have risen along with the island's overall tourism numbers. "Aruba has had one of the most loyal consumer bases in the Caribbean," he says.

"It's sort of amazing," Doug Stallings, Senior Editor of Cruises and Resorts at Fodor's Travel, tells Yahoo Travel about Aruba's boom. "Aruba has always been popular [but] the island has been doing a lot of marketing and publicity and that really does make a difference with U.S. travelers."

Still, there's more to the big Aruba boom than just a great marketing campaign. Here are some of the reasons why Aruba is now the hottest destination in the Caribbean.

They're putting out the welcome mat for visitors

Even in the Caribbean, Aruba stands out for its reliance on tourism. According to the World Tourism Council, Aruba's GDP is more reliant on travel and tourism than any other nation, relative to size, in the world; 88 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) is currently tied to tourism. With tourism in Aruba on an upswing, that number is expected to rise to 94 percent in the next 10 years.

So Aruba is making a big push to welcome as many visitors to the island as possible. "We recently introduced the Happiness Builder on aruba.com, a dynamic video itinerary planning tool to improve consumers' online planning experience," says the ATA's Luidens. Aruba also is undergoing a $1 billion "island revitalization and beautification project," which includes $100 million in hotel renovations and a planned $100-150 million investment in Reina Beatrix International Airport. The island doing everything but placing a gigantic "Welcome" mat on its main beaches (but don't give them any ideas).

They love Americans

While Aruba is open to all tourists, the United States is its cash cow. "It's always been a very attractive destination for Americans," Stallings from Fodor's says. Last year, more than half of Aruba's 1.07 million visitors, 53 percent, came from the United States. "It's a place where Americans are comfortable," Stallings says about Aruba. "Everybody speaks English. Everybody will take dollars; there's no reason to exchange your money. I think that's also attractive to a lot of Americans."

Another benefit for Americans vacationing in Aruba: U.S. Customs and Border Protection offers pre-clearance at Aruba's airport, allowing Americans to clear customs there so they don't have to deal with it when they land in the U.S. Because of that advantage, "airlines can fly [from Aruba] to U.S. airports that don't have customs," says Stallings. "That's a huge advantage [and] one of the biggest reasons why American tourism to Aruba remains very strong."

It's easy to get to

Passenger traffic at Aruba's main airport grew by double digits last year, with more growth expected this year. "There have been increases, especially from the Northeastern United States, which continues to be the strongest market for Aruba," says CheapCaribbean.com's Marmontello. "They have increased air capacity for the destination over the years."

"I think that JetBlue flying there has made a big difference," says Stallings, who believes JetBlue adding service to Aruba in 2006 was a game-changer for the island. "They've been seeing pretty steady increases since JetBlue started flying there," he says. "[JetBlue] offers reasonably priced flights year 'round. [Prices] don't jump and around, they don't double over the holidays usually. I think that makes a big difference."

Of course, JetBlue isn't the only airline offering service to Aruba. The big three U.S. carriers (American, Delta, and United) also fly there. So does Southwest, whose first international flight was to Aruba just last year ("I suspect that is also one of the reasons why travel [to Aruba] has spiked this year," Stallings says of Southwest's international expansion). Airfares to Aruba generally are cheaper during the off-peak season between Easter and Christmas. "Getting there cheaply is a seasonal thing," Stallings says.

The beaches are gorgeous

Yes, the beaches in the Caribbean are usually amazing, but they're especially so in Aruba. "Some of the best you can find in the Caribbean," Marmontello says of Aruba's beaches, all of which are public. "There's lots of bright blue water and white sand, depending on which beach you're on." Palm Beach and Eagle Beach are particular favorites. The 7-mile strip of unbelievable coastline on the west side of the island is lined with resorts and the ocean there is perfect for swimming. "It's also extremely shallow, so you can walk out for quite a bit in the water without really ever getting over your waist," says Marmontello. The beaches on the windward side have more rocky terrain and stronger undertow (so swimming is discouraged) but they're more secluded.

It's a popular cruise ship destination

Just about all the major cruise lines travel to Aruba; together the cruise lines brought almost 585,000 visitors to Aruba last year. "[The island] can accommodate pretty large ships," says Stallings. "And it's on a regular Southern Caribbean circuit." Cruise Critic has compiled a handy list of all the cruises that include Aruba on their itineraries.

The weather is great

That shouldn't come as a big surprise; Aruba is in the Caribbean, after all. "Pretty much year `round, you can go there and it's probably going to be a sunny day," says Marmontello. Aruba is one of the few places in the Caribbean that's not often affected by hurricanes, so you can go at any time and not worry about your vacation being ruined. "Every couple of years they have a hurricane skirt Aruba and cause damage," Stallings says. "But they're far enough south that they're rarely affected."

It's great for outdoor activities

That great weather means Aruba is a great place to be outside. "Diving is big," says Stallings. "The beaches are obviously beautiful. There's a lot of desert scenery if you want to explore." He points to Arikok National Park, which takes up almost 20 percent of the island and includes desert-like terrain in addition to gorgeous coastal views. "There are trails and they do four-wheel drive tours," says Stallings.

You can gamble there

While Aruba is great for outdoor activity, it also has a lot of indoor action as well — particularly casinos. "If you like gambling, it's a good destination," says Stallings." It's one of the few places in the Caribbean that has sort of Las Vegas-style casinos." Unlike places like the Bahamas, where the casino scene is pretty much dominated by one location, Atlantis, Aruba has multiple casinos to choose from. "Not every hotel [in Aruba] has a casino, but some of the bigger properties, the high-rises, generally do," says Marmontello. The major casinos include: Stellaris Casino, Aruba's largest casino, at the Aruba Marriott Resort; the Crystal Casino at Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino; and the Hyatt Regency Casino.

The restaurant scene rocks

"I've had some of the best meals of my life in the Caribbean but it can be very hit or miss," says Marmontello. "In Aruba, it's generally a hit." He advises tourists not to limit themselves to the restaurants in their hotels or the all-inclusive resorts. "You're going to have good food at these properties but you're probably not getting the most from your experience by just staying there," says Marmontello. "You should go out and sample some of the local food. You're going to get some of the best food you can experience when you get off the beaten path. Ask your transfer driver or your cab driver where they go" Great choices include three in Oranjestad, Aruba — Cuba's Cookin,' Quinta del Carmen and L.G. Smith's Steak & Chop House. And in Noord, there's Gasparito and Madame Janette's.

It's safe

The U.S. State Department lists the crime threat on Aruba as "medium" and warns that, as in other destinations, visitors to the island "should always take precautions when in unfamiliar surroundings" and "be especially observant when visiting isolated areas." Still, Aruba is generally considered a safe place for tourists. In a recent interview with Yahoo Travel, Justin Kersey, regional manager for the Americas at international risk management firm iJET, listed Aruba as one of its low-crime Caribbean destinations. Stallings says that makes Aruba ideal for exploring. "It's a pretty safe destination so you can go pretty much anywhere you want," he says. "Aruba is nice to have a car for at least a couple of days so you can explore a little bit further off the beaten path. You should get out and explore."

So if you're sold on Aruba and ready to head there now, here's one piece of advice: hurry! Peak season, when both the crowds and airfares tend to be higher, begins at around mid-December. But the good news is you still have a few weeks to discover for yourself what all the Aruba hype is all about.

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