“Aruba Ariba”: Diversifying Tourism Towards Inclusive Growth

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Written by Thaïs Franken, MSc.

It was on a Friday evening, March 13th 2020, when the Prime Minister of Aruba addressed the Aruban people and confirmed that Covid-19 has been detected on the island. It was a moment of complete uncertainty and with no solid answers to what we should be expecting moving forward. Everything changed so quickly as Aruba said goodbye to its visitors and closed its borders to protect the Aruban community. Since then, one and a half years later, Aruba has experienced four Covid-19 waves, but the question is what will the new normal look like for this small island? To what degree will tourism, Aruba’s lifeline, decline, stay the same, or possibly improve?

There is no question that COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial global social and economic impact. Both developed and developing economies have been affected. More so, marginalized societies and the most vulnerable have been hit hardest of all. Since 1980, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (WTO) has celebrated World Tourism Day as international observances on September 27. This year the WTO designated World Tourism Day 2021 as a day to focus on “Tourism for Inclusive Growth.”

The vision is to not only create economic prosperity but to provide everyone a voice for the future – including communities, minorities, youth and those who would otherwise be at risk of being left behind. Tourism is considered the pillar of most – if not all – the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), particularly Goals 1 (no poverty), 5 (gender equality), 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 10 (reduce inequalities). Just last week the world celebrated the SDG’s 6th anniversary, with outlooks and further commitments to achieving the 2030 agenda for sustainability.

After complete a lock down, shelter in place, and night time curfew, Aruba has been embracing its visitors but still concerned about the future. Around the world the restart of tourism will help kickstart recovery and growth. It is essential that the benefits this will bring are enjoyed widely and fairly. Today provides us a unique occasion to increase the conversation about the tourism sector’s role in Aruba’s recovery and growth.

The prevalence of Covid-19 has exposed the reality Aruba and most small island states have to endure; vulnerability and dependency. However, nothing prepared the island to see the other side of this reality. The dire reality where for the first time since the emergence of tourism on Aruba there were numerous empty hotel buildings and empty cruise ships docked at the harbor. UNESCO warns that an excessive dependency on tourism can also create localized mono-economies at the expense of diversification and alternative economic models. When mismanaged, tourism can, therefore, have negative effects on the quality of life and well-being of local residents, as well as the natural environment (2021).

For the last years there have been many discussions and debates about the implications of tourism on Aruba. What will the consequence of tourism be economically, socially and environmentally in a few years? Policy-wise Aruba shifted to the ideology of creating a “high value, low impact” development and experience for visitors, but how well has this been working out so far? Has the Aruban tourism industry ensured inclusive growth? Has it created a true balance between nation building and nation branding? In the effort of promoting our island and catering to the visitors demands, have we lost the Aruban identity?

Notwithstanding tourism’s strong prospect as a driver for positive change, which it is, challenges exist, including steering the space between economic gain and cultural integrity. Tourism’s crucial role in boosting inclusive community development can often remain at the margins of policy planning and implementation. Fast and unplanned tourism growth can trigger a range of negative impacts, including pressure on local communities and infrastructure from over-tourism during peak periods, gentrification of urban areas, waste problems and global greenhouse gas emissions (UNESCO, 2021).

According to a research by Peterson, DiPietro & Harrill (2020) “in mature, small-island tourism economies such as Aruba, social and ecological disparities are particularly evident and over an extended period have exceeded direct economic contribution. The case study reveals an Aruban community experiencing significant negative socioecological impacts and subsequent diminishing economic contribution and well-being. Concerns about environmental pollution and destruction, the loss of quality of life and income equality, in addition to over construction and crowding, indicate a growing animosity toward tourism and further tourism growth” (p. 235).

It was just last week that concerned citizens protested in front of the Parliament of Aruba to raise awareness to the detrimental environmental situation on the island, which includes over construction and its impact on nature, the waste water purification system that is declining, the deplorable waste management and landfill, and the impact of UTV and ATV’s on the environment. If Aruba truly wants achieve inclusive and sustainable growth, these are all good examples of challenges that need to be addressed as soon as possible.

Furthermore, the results of this research confirms that “Aruba is experiencing the damaging impacts or undesired effects of a mature and specialized tourism economy, in which tourism growth and continued physical tourism expansions have encroached on the social and environmental space of the community. These concerns are compounded by the surge in tourism visitors, with diminishing economic contribution, declining productivity levels and persistent income inequalities” (p. 234).

A country’s cultural heritage is an essential resource for the tourism industry and cultural tourism is the most appropriate way to capitalize on tangible or intangible heritage, which include nature reserves, marine parks, caves and diving sites, historical buildings, museums, monuments, oral traditions, indigenous practices, festivals, cultural events and local performing and visual arts (Keith Nurse,. According to Calin Veghes (2018) “currently, the contribution of cultural heritage to the inclusive growth is very limited. Its improvement depends on building a mechanism by which local resources – raw materials, technologies, know-how and creativity – can be used by the local economy to produce goods and services used to manage, promote and capitalize on the existing cultural heritage, and the results to be redistributed among its members, the community. Thus, local communities should be actively involved in the restoration, preservation, promotion and capitalization of the local tangible and/or intangible cultural heritage aiming to grow in a sustainable and inclusive manner” (p. 359).

Many tourists might hear “Aruba Ariba” and imagine a refreshing drink at the beach, but for World Tourism Day this year Aruba Ariba will represent a commitment to putting sustainability and inclusive growth a priority. A pledge to enrich the well-being of the Aruban people, while safeguarding all natural and cultural resources we proudly share with visitors. Aruba Ariba will symbolize Aruba’s promise to nourish innovation and foster sustainable development by addressing all urgent matters. Covid-19 might have caused an unprecedented economic setback, but moving forward let’s remember why visitors keep returning. They don’t only come for the white sandy beaches, but they come for the warm and cordial people.

Finally to quote Peterson, DiPietro & Harrill (2020):

“Community participation and participatory decision-making are essential to safeguarding inclusive tourism. Beyond sustaining the degenerative status-quo, tourism institutions need to focus their concerted efforts on regenerating the rich social and ecological context that once characterized the well-being of Aruba, the one happy island” (p. 236).

Happy World Tourism Day Aruba!