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TENERIFE, Spain-When Miguel Zerolo three years ago took on the job of chairman of the Canary Islands Tourism Board, his friends made bets that he wouldn't last two months.

"They told me I was crazy," he says, coming in with no experience to try to attract visitors to the Spanish islands in a recession.

But Mr. Zerolo's lack of ties to convention was just what was needed. Relying only partially on traditional tourism marketing, Mr. Zerolo came up with a series of innovative, press-grabbing promotional ideas that he executed on a shoestring budget.

Last year, the Islands, located off the Northwest coast of Africa, were filled to capacity as Mr. Zerolo's programs pulled in 8.5 million visitors, up 33% over 1992.

Most recently, a free trip this spring for 70 divorced or separated couples, dubbed "The Reconciliation Trip," tantalized the European and U.S. media for the tiny cost of print advertising: $72,000.

The interest was so great that it might be repeated later this year in other European countries. The trip was a twist to a similar offering for honeymooning couples in 1992, which made the "Guinness Book of World Rec ords." (Mr. Zerolo hopes to repeat that with the "Reconciliation Trip," said to have attracted $1.8 million worth of media attention on a $57,000 budget.)

Forecasts show that 1994 will repeat last year's SRO situation, a special accomplishment because it came while the entire Iberian Peninsula was experiencing an economic crisis, while tourism in Greece was bad and Egypt virtually closed for tourism, Mr. Zerolo says.

With a total $7 million budget this year to cover everything from traditional advertising to brochures to trade fairs and seminars for travel agents, the Islands focus most of the traditional efforts in key markets such as England, Germany, Central Europe and Scandinavia.

Campaigns are created in-house, but some projects are assigned to agencies in other markets when needed.

In the future, Mr. Zerolo is thinking about how to reach Americans. Last year only 4,000 Americans visited the islands.

"The Canaries are only one hour farther away than the Caribbean [from the U.S.' East Coast]," he notes. Still, he says, "In the U.S. they don't know if the Canaries are below Nicaragua or next to San Antonio, Texas."

As to his brilliant marketing stroke, Mr. Zerolo is magnanimous. "Everyone has ideas," he says, "but not everyone is sufficiently crazy" to follow them up, he says.

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