Friday, November 27, 2009

Christmas, Tourism and Timeshares

It's getting to be a lot like Christmas . . . everywhere I look.

This is our last night in sunny, warm and windy Aruba at the end of November. Tomorrow we fly home to reality. Meanwhile, we've been surrounded by signs of Christmas everywhere we look here in Aruba. The Christmas decor started going up before we arrived, and each day we have seen workers struggling to assemble large artificial trees and displays that would put our North American cities to shame. My favorite display is the winter fantasy land with its own St. Nick and tropical pool and waterfall just outside the Dutch Pancake House in the Ocean Marketplace, shown below.

You have to get that Aruba is built around tourism, since it doesn't have any other large income producing industry or trade. And the numbers of tourists, which are largely from the U.S., are way down this year. I overheard the proprietor of an ice cream shop tell some locals that it's been a very slow year for him because of the economic problems plaguing the U.S. and its residents this year.

I took a couple of walks down the main drag in Oranjestad, Aruba's capitol city and downtown shopping area, during the week we've been here and peeked into the many high end jewelry stores and Rodeo Drive type retailers. I didn't go into the stores, because I can't afford to be tempted by overpriced merchandise that I can't afford either. Mostly the jewelry stores were empty, and the Rodeo Drive type retailers weren't any busier. A few of the jewelry stores I entered had one or two customers, and when I eavesdropped, I learned that they were locals who had come in to do some specific shopping.

I ate lunch a couple of times at the buffet restaurant in our hotel, where lunch was $19.95 plus a $3.00 service charge before tip. The restaurant was never full, maybe more like half filled with people, and I overheard a mother ask the waitress to check her bill to be sure she had not been overcharged. At poolside, I saw two older couples who had brought salads from somewhere else, and I ran into a young fellow on the elevator with a Subway sandwich and a Diet Coke on his way to his room. Another sign of the times, people being careful with their finances while on vacation.

And also, another sign of how interconnected this little globe of ours is. The economic downturn that has affected my neighborhood's real estate prices and caused job layoffs in our high tech companies has also affected far off Aruba's people and businesses. We can't afford to travel, and the Arubans make adjustments as best they can. At the hotel we've seen some deferred maintenance, and in the hotel's casino, it's pretty clear that the staffing levels are down, because there's no one around when you need them to clear a malfunctioning slot machine.

There are some major building projects underway in Aruba, and I'm wondering how the sales are going at the multitude of timeshare projects coming on line. The Divi Divi project has staff at the arrivals area of the airport passing out free tote bags and timeshare presentation invitations offering $100 in services for an hour of your time. The financing of these building projects was put together at least two or more years ago, but the sale and financing of the timeshare units are happening now in today's economic environment. The outcome won't be known for probably another year, and I'm thinking the results won't be what the developers had planned on to retire their debt and take their profit.

I'd like to come back in a year to check out the economy here firsthand. Now wouldn't that be a nice Christmas present to myself next year? We'll see.

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