If you're an American who knows next to nothing about the Caribbean island of Curacao (other than perhaps a vague familiarity with its namesake blue liqueur), you're not alone. There's plenty to see and do in Curacao—breathtaking rocky beach caves, beautiful white sand beaches, historical capital city Willemstad—yet it's often overshadowed in the U.S. tourism market by its neighbor, Aruba, and other Caribbean destinations. But the Curacao Tourist Board, or CTB, is on a mission to change that.
Here's a crash course on Curacao: The island, along with Aruba and Bonaire, is part of what's known as the ABC islands located off the coast of Venezuela. The islands were once part of the Netherlands Antilles, a chain of islands governed until its dissolution in 2010 by the Netherlands. Curacao is currently an independent country that's part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which still has responsibility for its defense and foreign policy. Four languages are spoken there: Papiamento (a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English), Dutch, Spanish and English.
Most of Curacao's tourism comes from the Netherlands and Venezuela, its neighbor to the south, which owns oil refineries there. Thirteen percent of arrivals to Curacao are from the U.S.; 35 percent come from the Netherlands; and 27 percent arrive from Venezuela, according to the CTB.
"Awareness in the U.S. has always been a challenge," said Rebecca Marval, marketing advisor for the CTB. "We don't have the natural draw from the U.S. market as Aruba does. It's new ground, but it's growing. We see an increase year over year, but we'd like it to be more."
To drive up that awareness, the CTB and its agency, Catch New York, launched "Right Now in Curacao," a series of ads in New York subway stations and JFK airport designed to make New Yorkers dream about a trip to Curacao when they're stuck in tedious commutes. The effort also included events in August with batido (Caribbean smoothie) trucks parked at various locations in New York, where people could enter to win a trip to Curacao. The ads showcase Curacao's beautiful rocky beaches, crystal clear Caribbean waters and the colorful Dutch buildings in Willemstad.
"It's saying, while you're in the rain or cold or waiting for a subway, this is what's happening right now in Curacao," Marval said. "It's a simple way of showing off what's unique to the island."
Doug Spitzer, chief creative officer at Catch New York, said, "The whole idea is whatever you're doing now is a lot more miserable than anything that happens on a trip to Curacao. The best place to show that is when you're stuck on the New York City subway or the airport. Trips start with dreaming before you plan and research—we're trying to come into that process even sooner."
Targeting 'innovative tourists'
"Right Now in Curacao," set to run through December, represents the first stage of the CTB's five-year plan to attract more American tourists. It's focused initially on the New York area and Florida, and through 2020, it will extend into the Midwest, with Chicago as its airline hub, and the South, with Houston as the airline hub.
The campaign is aimed at travelers in their mid-30s and up. (The average age of a tourist visiting Curacao is 43.) Most importantly, these travelers also are looking for off-the-beaten-path experiences.
"We refer to them as 'innovative tourists,'" Marval said. "The traveler that we attract from the U.S. has been to the Caribbean before. They might have been to other islands before they find out about or even consider Curacao. We also refer to them as cultural explorers. They're not the type to go to the hotel, stay at the beach for four or five days, and leave. They're ready to explore. They like to learn more and get to know the local elements."
One of the unique local elements future marketing efforts will highlight is Curacao's Dutch-Caribbean heritage. The historic buildings in Willemstad, including the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue in the Americas, helped the city earn its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Curacao also was part of the Dutch slave trade in the 1600 and 1700s, and several plantation houses, some now converted into restaurants or event spaces, remain. One such restaurant, Hofi Cas Cora, boasts Pinterest-worthy shabby chic décor and a farm to table philosophy that's straight out of Brooklyn, and it grows much of the vegetables served there on a farm on the property.
"We have the elements that anyone expects from the Caribbean—sun, sea and sand," Marval said. "But what makes us unique is a rich history, the cultural elements, the mixed people, the languages spoken on the island, the food that's being served, the music you hear, and the arts scene."
And, yes, you can visit the 120-year-old distillery, Landhuis Chobolobo, that makes the famous Genuine Curacao Liqueur. The liqueur, crafted from the island's laraha oranges, is available in five colors that all have the same orange flavor, as well as coffee and tamarind flavors.
"There're competing with other islands and with people who are doing a lot of adventure travel in South America," Spitzer said. "We're finding a way to hone in on what they are and establish that personality. We're creating a personality that will look and feel different."
The CTB's plan through 2020 aims to increase Curacao's competitive position in the Caribbean and increase tourism's contribution to the country's economy. (It's currently 18 percent.)
It could be a tough road, however. According to the CTB, compared with other Caribbean islands, Curacao is nearly 35 percent below the average key hotel metric RevPAR (revenue per available room), and it's ranked 16th out of 17 in terms of competitive position, which is calculated by a mix of tourism receipts and the value tourism adds to each destination's gross domestic product.
"We're not looking to go from 16th to first overnight," Spitzer said. "It's about finding an audience that's looking for hidden gems and showing off the culture and the diversity of the island more, reaching out to different audiences and understanding that there are plenty of people who want to travel to a place where they're not going to run into their neighbor."
Marval agrees. "If you're in the U.S. and you say you've been to Mexico that weekend, a lot of other people probably have, too," she said. "We're something different. We want people to say, 'Have you not been to Curacao yet? Here's what you missed out on.' You come here to experience something new."