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Arubans Worry About Island's Image

As the mystery of a missing Alabama teenager drags into a fourth week, Arubans complain their peaceful little island is getting a bad rap.

And they worry that if the disappearance of 18-year-old Natalee Holloway (search) isn't solved soon, Americans might get scared away, depriving the island of a prime source of revenue.

"We were just one happy island with one happy people and it seems everything has changed," said Marcus Wiggins, the boss of Steve Gregory Croes (search), a tourist boat disc jockey who was arrested Friday in the case. "We just want the old Aruba back."

Tourism accounts for 70 percent of the gross domestic product of Aruba, a Dutch protectorate of 97,000. The island welcomes 728,000 visitors each year and an additional 550,000 cruise ship passengers. More than 70 percent are from the United States.

Aruba's sweet ocean breeze and its luxurious hotels aren't the only reason Americans come to the island. Many also have found this is one of the safest spots in the Caribbean.

With street lights even along most ocean roads, the island feels like paradise in a protective bubble. Young Americans enjoying the 18-year-old drinking age go from bars to nightclubs late into the night, with taxi drivers parked outside waiting to shuttle them to hotels.

But now the island has become a victim of its reputation as virtually free of violent crime.

"The reason you are seeing so much negative publicity is that these things don't happen in Aruba," said Myrna Jansen-Feliciano of the Aruba Tourist Authority (search). "Our blessing has been a curse."

The last time a tourist was killed was in 1996, when two robbers shot and killed an American woman. They were arrested and convicted, police said. In 2005, only one person has been murdered, an Aruban man.

Arubans take comfort in the knowledge that about half their annual visitors have been to the island before so they know what it is like and won't be swayed.

Besides, the islanders say, how many countries have the solidarity to mobilize a nationwide search for one person? After Holloway vanished, thousands of Arubans took off work to comb the island.

Authorities previously detained 17-year-old Joran van der Sloot (search), the son of a Dutch justice official on Aruba, and his two friends, Surinamese brothers Deepak Kalpoe, 21, and Satish Kalpoe, 18.

The three men have said they took Holloway to a northern beach before dropping her off at her hotel in the early hours of May 30, the day she disappeared.

Natalee's disappearance "shows people need to be more careful on vacation, but we feel safe here," said Kim Falk, who was visiting from Janesville, Wis., with her husband and daughter Hannah, 14.

Does Hannah, a blonde who resembles Holloway, feel safe?

"Of course," she said. "And it's not like I'll be going to the bar or anything."

Since Natalee's disappearance, none of the 20 international airlines with up to 85 daily flights have reported cancellations, said Sharissa Arends, spokeswoman for Aruba Airport Authority (search).

Tour package operators have had no cancellations and hotel occupancy is slightly higher than this time last year, said Jansen-Feliciano.

Still, Arubans are worried. Local newspapers have interviewed business owners to see if they fear a slowdown, and Prime Minister Nelson Oduber (search) has expressed concern.

"We've been working 50 years, day and night, to build up tourism," Oduber said last week.

Natalee's mother, Beth Holloway Twitty, has said if she doesn't get answers soon, she may believe authorities are trying to protect the detained young men.

Aruban authorities say police work takes time and no one is above the law.

But in Birmingham, Ala., talk show hosts Russ and Dee Fine of Radio 101.1 FM have called for a boycott of Aruba. And some Americans have sent letters to the Web site caribbeannetnews.com.

"How dare the Aruban and Dutch Governments pretend not to know what has happened," one said last week. "Add another American never returning to Aruba."

Lorenzo Irasmus, 60, the captain of a deep-sea-fishing boat for tourists, says eventually the hoopla will die down.

"We know high season, low season, and the post-Sept. 11 travel season, but no matter what, the tourists keep coming," he said.