AHATA’s Chairman remarks at the General Assembly

Ewald BiemansHotelier Ewald Biemans, Chairman of the Board of the Aruba Hotel & Tourism Association addressed his organization’s General Assembly recently, at its first gathering for 2008, at the Renaissance Convention Center.

While his address during the General Assembly in November of 2007 was titled the “winds of change,” the metaphorical winds picked up Biemans reported and Aruba had better prepare for a storm, namely a Hurricane, in the labor market, within the next year or two.

The Chairman continued to explain that in 2007 the infamous LTU law was passed by the Council of Ministers and brought unexpected winds of change – the unpleasant news that as of the year 2006 work permits granted will have an expiration date within 3 years; with no extension option, with the exception of Dutch nationals.

And that, reported the Chairman is creating the potential storm. In 2009 about 7,000 work permits of well trained, well established tourism workers will expire. These associates, who in the meantime learned the skills and the languages required, and who are capable of providing good service to the island’s customers, are people who invested in properties and cars and brought families to our shores. They will find themselves in a situation where they will have to leave, their permits expired, non – renewable. Period!

How is the island going to replace them, asked the Chairman and where will the island be able to recruit new people from; how and where is the island going to train them?! And will the replacements be versed in the required languages? Besides, how is the government going to process this new avalanche of work permit paperwork?

Presently, stated the Chairman, the authorities are unable to process regular requests, there is a backlog of documents already, and how will they be able to proceed with the added burden.

Biemans explained that in 2010 several thousands of more work permits will expire, perhaps another estimated 5,000 associates will be forced to depart – and how is the island going to replace them?

Recently, recounted Biemans, he was invited to attend a luncheon with the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Biemans appealed to him on this issue since he was informed that the law originated in Holland. The Dutch Prime Minister emphatically denied this and so did the representative of the Dutch government here in Aruba – and Biemans found out that this law was implemented by the island’s own government! But the finger pointing, her remarked, goes on – as Aruba’s politicians point northeast and the Dutch point southwest – with no solution in sight.

This law is just one of a series of roadblocks the island is facing in servicing the high caliber customers the island is encouraged to attract, Biemans informed.

The hotels on Aruba collectively spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve their facilities. Almost every hotel has undergone extensive renovations and additions, the Chairman stated.

Yet the local newspapers feature daily recruitment adz of open positions the hotels seem unable to fill and the question remains, if the island is experiencing such a labor shortage now, how is Aruba going to fill vacancies in the future with an additional 7,000 to 12,000 open positions.

Biemans shared his frustration with the fact that on one hand the hoteliers are told by the Government – raise the quality of your hotels and services – and on the other they are unable to get the permits to sustain that level of service and are often denied the permits required to satisfy THIS MANDATE.

Furthermore building permits are issued left and right – at present 3,000 hotel rooms and condominiums are in the pipeline, the Chairman revealed. All these new projects will require additional staff – the rule of thumb is five new persons for every new hotel room or apartment. And this should be of no surprise, shared the Chairman, as it is common knowledge that in the period between 1989 and 1997 when the island increased from 2,000 rooms to 5,000 room, 25,000 foreign workers arrived here to satisfy the demand created by the new rooms.

Where will we get the additional labor from, questioned the Chairman, and who is going to train the recruits in the languages, the skills, the culture, and service standards and where are these just-hired 15,000 to 20,000 foreign workers live?

Overall, Biemans questioned how Aruba was going to survive this influx, he justly titled a hurricane.

Perhaps a little ray of hope, he continued, is the fact that the hotels are allowed to bring in American citizens because of a recently discovered friendship treaty between Holland and America. This treaty apparently does away with the LTU’s 3-year restriction.

Another way to prepare Biemans said is to lobby with the powers within the government to import skilled labor from the European community countries, and also by requesting the elimination of the LTU restrictions for EU members.

Europeans and Americans, explained Biemans, will work here for a few years and return to their home countries. A Belgian is not going to request a Dutch passport – an Austrian is not going to want to become a Dutch national nor is an Italian for that matter. They are all Europeans already and they will eventually go home and new talent can then be attracted.

This will eliminate the fear of naturalization and will minimize applications for Dutch citizenship, which was the goal of the LTU law to begin with, Biemans asserted.

Biemans asked each and every one of his audience members to take a good look at this situation and go out and lobby to force the government into change and avert this Titanic disaster which the island will be facing in the next 2 -3 years, he said.

The shortage of labor, reiterated Biemans will cause irreparable damage to the island’s reputation, and jeopardize the island’s income and endanger the entire industry which will result in the government’s loss of taxes. How is the government going to make up for the revenue shortfalls and is it going to be imposing more taxes, he asked.

Having dealt with the labor situation, Biemans turned his attention to the next storm on his horizon which he calls the environment!

AHATA, he revealed, has financed the study of the Linear Park – an infrastructure that would improve the environmental issues of beaches and reefs. It was designed to protect the area from the lighthouse to the airport – the island’s tourism corridor. It was supposed to be the new beginning – the new roadmap to an environmentally sustainable future.

And this corridor stated Biemans needs urgent protection now, in view of the damage already created.

According to the Chairman some of the funds for this project were finally made available through the FDA, earmarked to protect Baby Beach and Arashi. Biemans question was why not allocate that money to where it hurt most – the island’s most abused areas and beaches such as Eagle and Palm Beach, and then hopefully expand to other areas.

There is so much to do, he stated especially within the commercial sector and in regards to the authorities, and unfortunately, AHATA, he stated, does not see any efforts towards the conception of an all-encompassing environmental plan in progress.

While the elimination of plastic bags is a laudable effort, Biemans shared, it does not resolve the issues of the destruction of reefs and beaches and the litter and illegal dumps.

The elimination of plastic bags will not raise the island’s standing as an environmentally conscious destination, he offered. Yes, Aruba has achieved a dismal rating, and with more development the ratings will continue to tumble –unless the island springs into action, Biemans advised.

The danger of customer going elsewhere – somewhere clean, somewhere safe, somewhere where they care about the environment and somewhere where their environmental footprint is perceived as minimal, is real, he warned.

Having raised a red flag about environmental-protection and legislation the Chairman informed he was pleased to report that more hotels joined the environmental bandwagon and that he hoped it will help improve the island’s image and performance.

At the conclusion of his remarks Biemans stated that there is a lot of work left to be done, and AHATA and its President and CEO Rob Smith are involved in many other projects which are going well, and will be successful.

Urging his audience to become lobbyists in the name of quality conscious customers, Biemans signed off saying the island’s high paying guests should be given the proper service, which they paid for and have the right to expect, and that Aruba’s tourism industry should band together to deliver it right, every time, all the time.

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April 09, 2008
Rona Coster