"Beach erosion, reef destruction, pollution, the depletion of natural resources, habitat loss and decline in scenic amenities are but a few aspects of environmental degradation which can seriously affect the economic development of small island nations dependent on tourism.
"In the last decade the island of Aruba has experienced all of the above problems when, after the closure of the refinery in 1985, the economy was revived by a massive tourism expansion program which resulted in the local industry tripling its room capacity."
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND TOURISM IN ARUBA
Islander Magazine, Issue 4 (July 1997)
My hazy, optimistic pre-trip expectations of what Aruba would be like ran smack into the reality of the island. As Jake Ryan has pointed out in his honest journal on Jamaica, the tourist industry performs a disservice to travelers when it promotes overly-glossy, romanticized images of the Caribbean. While I’m not necessarily comparing Aruba to Jamaica, the two islands share one essential trait: They are both dependent on tourism for their economic survival.
Now the question I should have asked myself beforehand was what kind of place would result from this. Had I been a more savvy, less gullible traveler, I would have taken the trouble to learn a little objective information about the island I was about to visit. I focused on glowing accounts at tourist sites of Aruba’s lovely white sand beaches.
What I didn’t realize, however, is that the island has undergone almost a complete transformation in the past 17 years, making a stunning transition from an island almost completely dependent economically on the oil industry to one dependent on tourism.
The facts are these. According to a United Nations Development Programme report:
"Aruba's tourism development strategy is of relatively recent origin and is widely held to be a success story, if not economic a "miracle". In 1985, Aruba embarked on a strategy of tourism development increasing the number of hotel rooms from a little over 2000 rooms (2208) in that year to around 7,000 (6,843) by 1996. The number of visitors grew from around 200,000 visitors to 641,000 by the end of 1996, exclusive of cruiseship day visitors."
Stop and think about that for a minute. In a little over a decade, the number of visitors increased three-fold, not including the masses of people who disembark from cruise ships. It’s a small island, with almost all the development concentrated along the west coast. What would the consequences of this rapid change be?
I won’t say I found Aruba especially crowded (we visited offseason), except when cruise ships disgorged masses of day-trippers in Oranjestad. Nor will I say that the overall Aruban tourist experience is unpleasant. It's all very benign, almost bland in its careful cultivation. Aruba has taken great pains to draw tourists in, but some of the things that were selected as tourist "draws" are, in my book, complete turn-offs.
Take, for example, the numerous casinos. I’ve got nothing against gambling; in fact, I occasionally enjoy a day at the racetrack. But slot machines, blackjack tables and late-night casino action have limited appeal to travelers like me whose primary interests are local culture and a healthy natural environment. On the contrary, this sort of tourist development, much in evidence on Aruba, panders shamelessly to the "party hearty" booze-cruisers. In fact, there's a symbiotic relationship between Caribbean ports-of-call like Oranjestad and the massive Carnival-style cruise ships that belly up to the docks. The ports trick themselves out into frothy theme parks, full of glitter and attention-grabbing attractions, all no farther than six blocks (your average passenger's walking tolerance, apparently) of the dock.
Okay, I know. Booze cruisers are entitled to their pleasures, too. There’s no ocean near Vegas, so perhaps it was fate that some island would become the self-styled "Vegas of the Caribbean." I just wish it hadn’t been Aruba.
Another problem results from the development of major American brand-name resorts. Maybe I’m atypical – in fact, I know I am, because Aruba has a lot of happy return visitors – but I just can’t see the appeal of coming to stay in a cookie-cutter Hyatt or Marriott resort. Why not just stay in one in the U.S., if that's your thing? There was nothing about them that seemed to me even remotely "Aruban." From what I could tell, there isn’t much overall difference between staying in Aruba and staying in, say, Florida, except Florida is a lot closer.
No doubt, some bright spark on the Aruban planning commission was responsible for this, having done his homework on what drew tourists in like gangbusters back in the USA. They’ve obviously sought to cash in on the growing demand for pre-fabricated, all-inclusive, stress-free vacations. Is this a good thing? It depends on your perspective, I guess.
One of my main issues with Aruba is the way it is promoted. Here are some of the terms I personally focussed on while looking at tourist information: "pristine coastline," "dynamic culture," "natural wonders," "ruggedly scenic landscape," "protected underwater park." It’s what I chose to focus on, I’ll admit. If I’d looked just a little harder, I would have realized that the windswept, rugged island image didn’t mesh with the casinos and Americanized resorts I knew were there. Oil and water, so to speak.
I have no legitimate quarrel with Aruba's decision to set itself up to draw in the greatest number of tourists, though unfortunately they seem to have set the bar for the lowest common denominator. By agressively developing its tourist industry Aruba went from having 21% unemployment after the closure of the oil refinery to no unemployment. Aruba must actually import labor from South America, neighboring islands, and the Netherlands to support the tourist industry.
My concern is that the waves of outsiders visiting and working on the island have diluted the local culture to the point of no return. There's evidence that the influx is causing an increase in crime and social tension. I heard Arubans grumbling about South Americans, South Americans grumbling about the Dutch, and the Dutch deploring - without going into cultural specifics - the general "decline" of the island. Clearly, the much-touted tourist slogan "One Happy Island" is true only if the smiling demeanor of Arubans that tourists come into contact with is taken at face value.
Cultural issues aside, tourism has definitely had a negative impact on the island’s ecology, despite some recent enlightened (in comparison to other Caribbean islands) environmental policies. But it may have been a case of too little, too late. To quote again from the Islander Magazine article:
"Government macro-economic policy in Aruba does not adequately address socio-economic factors and does not recognize the necessity of limits to growth, which is essential to sustainable development…
"National environmental policy in Aruba should recognize tourism as the mainstay of the Aruban economy and set a limit to growth by instituting a ceiling for the receptive capacity (number of hotel rooms and number of annual visitors), allow community participation in decision making, stress long term planning, institute environmental restoration and protection, and emphasize quality over quantity. It should also target less damaging ways to raise net tourist revenue in national strategic tourism marketing plans." [Emphasis mine]
In closing, I'll just say that something important happened to me in Aruba, though I feel a little sheepish admitting it. For the first time, I started thinking very seriously about the impact of my own actions as a tourist. When I came back to the U.S., I started to research the effects of tourism on the Caribbean and was dismayed by what I found. I was startled to read, for example, that while the average Aruban household generates 170 liters of waste water per day, that the average hotel room generates 840 liters. No wonder Aruba has waste disposal problems! While I’d always prided myself in being a fairly responsible tourist, it took Aruba to really bring home to me what can happen to a small, contained environment in a very short time.
Although there is now a moratorium on building more resorts in Aruba, the moratorium unfortunately does not apply to projects which had already been approved before it took effect. And here is the irony: At a certain point, people like me become completely disinterested in visiting places like Aruba. Over-development essentially kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. When the tourists leave, the local people are left with... what? A despoiled island.
I enjoyed my visit to Aruba in many ways, but I don't picture myself going back there, at least not until I’m sure my visit will do something for the island itself rather than merely add to some resort developer’s bank account.
Postscript: For an honest appraisal of tourism's effects, I urge you to read "The Politics of Travel," a ground-breaking critique of tourism which appeared in The Nation in 1997.