Many destinations have stepped up their environmental sustainability efforts in recent years. But the island nation of Aruba is going further than most, working to reduce plastic use, support local communities, and make tourism itself a more sustainable industry overall.
For the island of Aruba, which just won a place on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2020 list in recognition of its progressive sustainability efforts, climate change isn’t a hypothetical.
“Climate change is absolutely motivating our work,” said Varelie Croes, the chief innovation officer for the Government of Aruba. “And we’re tackling it in a foundational, systematic way that I haven’t seen in other countries and on other islands. What we’re doing and the approach we’re taking is very unique.”
The destination has made major investments in recent years in future-proofing the island. Along the way, Aruba has become a major force in sustainability, garnering recognition from the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the press, and travelers who care about the environmental footprint of their trips. National Geographic has recognized Aruba’s de-carbonization efforts with a “destination leadership” award, noting that “six other Caribbean nations have now adapted the ‘Aruba Model’ to propel their own transitions towards becoming more sustainable destinations.”
“Tourism is our economy,” Croes said. “Being aware of climate change and natural disasters is key. It has motivated us to implement and invest in ambitious solutions and creative partnerships.”
That reality has motivated ambitious solutions and creative partnerships, Croes said. “Becoming sustainable is one thing. Remaining sustainable is another,” she said. “This requires a cultural transformation and mindset shift. The work we are doing today is important, and the work we have to do over the next few decades is critical.”
Luckily for the island, numerous stakeholders are contributing to that success. For one, the government itself has earmarked significant budget resources to the office of innovation, which collaborates with public and private entities to develop 21st-century solutions to environmental challenges, Croes said. The private sector has also stepped up, with hotels in particular making great strides toward environmental sustainability. Properties like Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort, to take one example, are now regional leaders in low-impact practices — the property is the first carbon-neutral resort in the Caribbean. Now, other hotels across the region are adopting those ideas. Lastly, Aruban citizens are working to build a more environmentally and socially responsible tourism future for the island, working to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastic, opening “maker labs” to reduce and upcycle waste, and leading the charge toward an Aruba Pledge that will define the island’s sustainable future.
A History of Environmental Stewardship
When it comes to sustainability, Aruba has a long history of innovation. One of the leaders of environmentally sustainable development on the island has been Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort, a 104-room retreat that opened back in 1987. From the start, it was built as an ecologically conscious property, said Nathaly Stanley, the sustainability manager for Bucuti.
“When Mr. Ewald Biemans founded the resort more than 30 years ago, he had a vision for it to be sustainable,” Stanley said. “He saw from the beginning that there was a lot of heavy development in the tourism sector — and that the development could actually end up hurting rather than being desirable, this being a small island, with the nature and beaches that we have. So, he decided to try to protect and preserve it from the very start.”
Since then, many programs have taken hold at the resort, Stanley said. It has reduced portion sizes to decrease food waste and divert any remaining scraps to a pig farm rather than to a landfill — much of the produce served on property is locally grown on Aruba, a rarity for larger hotels on the island. Rooms are equipped with amenity dispensers rather than plastic bottles, and Bucuti has taken steps to reduce the overall amount of bulk purchases, plastics, and unnecessary packaging, in general, that arrives on property so that there’s less to throw out, said Suzanne van Grinsven, director of human resources, local public relations, and office, at Bucuti. “We’ve eliminated almost all of plastic on the property,” van Grinsven said.
Bucuti uses solar panels to provide some power, and there’s another clever solution to further reduce its reliance on Aruba’s grid: “We’ve even just purchased gym equipment that helps generate power,” Stanley said. “So, it’s a win-win. You feel good because you finally made it to the gym while on vacation, and you’re helping us reduce our power usage.” Over the past 30-plus years, Bucuti has won countless accolades for its extensive efforts, including, in April, the Climate Action Award at the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Awards Ceremony in Seville, Spain.
Other island properties have implemented significant sustainability initiatives. At the Boardwalk Boutique Hotel Aruba, owners (and sisters) Kimberly and Stephanie Rooijakkers have embarked on an expansion to their property, fitting new casitas with low-flow fixtures and well-insulated walls that reduce the power that air conditioning systems ultimately consume. As important as any ecological efforts are, Kimberly Rooijakkers said, is introducing visitors to the greater Aruban community and helping those guests understand that the island is more than just a sun-and-sand escape.
“In general, there’s a trend toward more sustainable tourism globally,” she said. “But it could go further.”
The Future of Sustainability on Aruba
Numerous grassroots organizations have sprung up in recent years to help push Aruba into a more sustainable future, including the entrepreneurial co-working space Brenchie’s Lab at the National Library of Aruba in Oranjestad and Plastic Beach Party, a “maker space” focused on recycling, upcycling, and waste management, also based in the capital. But as critical as environmental sustainability is, tourism leaders said, it’s only one part of the equation. Just as critical is social sustainability and an economically secure future for the island.
“Along with our ambitious sustainability goals such as the working bans on single use plastic and reef-destroying sunscreen and opening the Island as a testing hub for renewable solutions for our planet, we are excited to roll out a human-centric action plan for 2020 and beyond to ensure the protection of the environment for generations to come,” said Ronella Tjin Asjoe-Croes, the CEO of the Aruba Tourism Authority, in a recent statement.
As part of that work, the destination has just launched an Aruba Promise, aimed at visitors. Like similar destination-preservation efforts in Hawaii or Palau, the voluntary pledge asks that arriving guests acknowledge their responsibility to the island. Guests can commit to “[helping] preserve this island for generations to come” and to “respect land, sea, and nature” — and then share their promise to social media. The goal, according to the Promise? That future visitors “embrace the one happy island spirit” for many years to come.