I’ve been sitting on this post for quite some time now. Everywhere there seems to be individuals with opinions about the island in regards to what some perceive as a savage over development in Aruba and all the troubles it might bring with it. As I like to write about real estate, it is logical I would like offer my point of view on the matter. I will, however, put into a broad – historical – context.
For some, development generally means progress and advancement for the people, while for others it means another way for scrupulous entrepreneurs to abuse. I think there is a middle way. We need to walk the path of sustainable growth and structural planning. At the same time address issues that affects any modern community in modern times.
One Happy Island
Aruba’s motto is “One Happy Island”. This motto appears now-a-days in many promotional brochures and on license plates on all the vehicles on the island.
This phrase was made by a clever marketing firm in New Jersey which was hired by the local tourism office. The firm sent a representative to Aruba to learn about the island and to get inspiration for this assignment. It turned out to be an easy assignment. The representative noticed that everywhere he went people where friendly and happy towards the stranger that he was. He was amazed by that, as he has never witnessed something like that before in his life.
This motto however has been used by many for whatever purpose, generally trying to put Aruba in a negative connotation. They exchange the “Happy” for something else when trying to express frustration for whatever reason. Not very creative and rather silly in my opinion. Always remember that happiness is a choice.
How did the Aruba-story start?
Aruba was a sleepy colonial island for the largest part of its history. The Spanish first came to the island and held house for 135 years, where after the Dutch took over. The island remained Dutch ever since. There were brief periods of time that other countries made their presence in Aruba, but it was too short to be significant.
After people worked in the gold, phosphate and aloe industries in most part of the 19th and 20th centuries, the first true major happening occurred with the opening of Lago Oil Refinery in the 1920s.
St. Nicolas became a booming oil town and engine to this sleepy island. Due to the opening of the refinery the island was receiving major investments. The refinery meant good things for this island, but also bad. Short summary:
- Jobs for almost everyone
- More means for the people and government
- Constant flow of investments
- Opportunity to open Aruba’s award winning water company
- Reliance on one company
- Social problems
- Exploitation of workers
Fast forward a couple of decades to the beginning of the 90s and the landscape in Aruba changed dramatically. In short:
- During the second world war Aruba became the biggest supplier of fuel for the allied forces in the Americas (1943-1945)
- Aruba stopped being a Dutch colony and became a de facto colony of Curaçao island (1954)
- Aruba’s water company was opened, consequently the water shortage problems were solved (1959)
- Aruba’s first hotel and casino opened [Aruba Caribbean Hotel, today Radisson Resort] on Palm Beach (1961)
- The refinery shut its doors (1983)
- Aruba acquired its sovereignty from Curaçao island (1986)
After a lot of hard work, and setbacks, Aruba’s economy started to flourish. This thanks in large parts to major investments in tourism. Hotels, roads and communication became top priority. There where years where the economy grew with a staggering 8 percent.
The income per capita grew rapidly as well. Unemployment dropped with impressive numbers. So much so that at a certain point there just weren’t enough people to work and business owners started to call for a more tolerant admissions policy for foreign workers.
The first cracks into the happy story became visible when the admission to enter Aruba was made too loose. The people who were allowed to live on Aruba weren’t necessarily the ones we were waiting for. They were generally uneducated workers without the understanding of our culture, language and tourism. They generally couldn’t speak English. Even though these workers were crucial for the growth of this island, somehow they refused to assimilate and we failed to enforce this assimilation.
Aruba’s population grew from roughly 60.000 people to just over 100.000 people in 15 years. The small town, small community feel was altered. Still Aruba kept growing and somehow people managed to get along with each other.
Currently it feels like Aruba has landed into a new era of tourism. After a few years of slow growth, Aruba seems to be in a roller coaster ride. Construction is surging, population is growing and again there is pressure from commercial partners to loosen immigration laws to cope with the growth.
Everywhere there seems to be commercial activity popping and without a specific direction or plan to ensure structural and sustainable growth.
More specifically, I think there should be designed areas for specific commercial activities. Additionally there needs to be a structured and dynamic admission policy in order to prevent mistakes from the past.
My complaint about current construction isn’t on the projects themselves, but rather the lack of a coherent master plan designed by the government which clearly states where is allowed to built and where prohibited.
In my opinion Aruba has a lot of potential. The standard of living is one of the highest in the region, education opportunities are present and the island’s economy is growing. Aruba has the tools to choose its destination, one which is desirable for both locals and visitors alike.