The Beginnings of Tourism
In the 1920’s, Aruba had only a few visitors. Between 1924 and 1928, there were about 200 yachts, motor vessels and tankers registered, bringing American businessmen and visitors.
The Lago Refinery had been the main source of employment for the island of Aruba ever since 1924. In the 1950s, due to automation, many employees lost their jobs. To boost the economy, a new industry was sought. The Dutch government proposed tourism, which seemed the most feasible choice.
In 1947, it was decided that a commission must be established to promote and direct tourism on the island, with Ernst Bartels at the helm. In 1953, the Aruba Tourist Commission officially became the Aruba Tourist Bureau (ATB). This was a small organization with only two employees; Ernst Bartels remained chief, assisted by Casper Wever. ATB continued the vital work of promoting Aruba as a tourism destination, especially in the United States, one of the key markets for the Caribbean.
In 1959, the Caribbean Hotel, Aruba’s first multi-story resort hotel opened. From that time until 1977, the number of hotels increased to 16 and total number of rooms reached 2,148. Five hotels had their own casinos.
Tourism in the 1980s – 1990s
In January 1983, Sasaki Associates, Inc. of Watertown, Massachusetts assisted by several government agencies concluded a six-month study dealing with the development of Aruba’s main tourism corridor - the coastal area extending from Oranjestad to California Point in the northwest corner of the island. This became the focus of Aruba’s tourism growth because of wide beaches, warm ocean waters and land that could be easily developed. Major investments by government in roadways, waterlines and sewage treatment facilities facilitated large-scale resort hotel development.
A new roadway network was developed. Protection of environmentally sensitive areas such as the unique geological formations and dunes of Arashi/California Point, and the major salinas (for floodwater storage) was a priority. They sought to preserve the beauty of the existing desert landscape and native plants.
By 1984, tourism was a well-developed sector in the Aruban economy. In fact, among the primary sectors, it was second only to the oil industry, in terms of its contribution to the gross domestic product (Unesco, 1990).
The closing of the oil refinery, resulting from declining market value and cutbacks in the supply of Venezuelan oil, had a great impact on the Aruban economy in 1985. In 1986, Aruba achieved its status aparte, withdrawing from the Antillean federation and becoming an autonomous entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was within this context the tourism took over as the economic force on Aruba.
After the closure of Lago in 1985, the Aruba Government decided to invest in tourism as the economic pillar of the island and replaced the Aruba Tourist Bureau with the newly created Aruba Tourism Authority (ATA) in 1986. ATA grew in importance, concentrating on opening new markets and expanding its marketing activities.
In the period from 1986 – 1996, tourism to Aruba grew almost twice the rate of that of the entire Caribbean in the period. From 1986, when construction of hotels resumed, until 1991, total number of rooms more than doubled from 2,776 to 5,625. During this period, the number of timeshares also increased about fivefold, from 337 units to 1967 units. By the end of 1996, there were 7,103 rooms, of which timeshare units totaled 2,272.
The refinery reopened in 1990 by Coastal, but tourism remained the mainstay of the island’s export earnings. The government’s role in this growth was due to the fact that it devoted considerable resources to support the tourism industry in order to increase revenues and create employment, developing a basic infrastructure to serve hotels and other tourist facilities, directly supporting the expansion of tourist accommodations by partial ownership of three hotels totaling about 600 rooms.
Hotels are concentrated in two main areas: high rises in Palm Beach, and low-rises in Eagle Beach and Punta Bravo. The majority of today’s hotels fall under foreign ownership and many of them are international brands. Despite the increase in hotel capacity, Aruba enjoys a hotel occupancy rate averaging about 75% year-round, one of the highest in the Caribbean. Aruba’s popularity has remained constant, due not only to sun, sand and sea, but also to other factors including the hospitality and friendliness of its people, safety, political stability, and various niches such as activities, nightlife, shopping, restaurants.
The airport, built in 1972 and expanded in 1987, has recently been modernized and expanded. US Immigration arrived in 1988, and US Customs in 2000, made possible by a new state-of-the-art building for U.S. departures only. Many flights pre-clear U.S. immigration and customs in Aruba, a boon for those traveling to the States.