Locals in Aruba protest unsustainable growth of hotel and tourism industry

Protestors in Aruba demonstrating against the island's environmental crisis. Photo courtesy of the ‘No More Hotels’ movement, used with permission.

The Caribbean, with a rich and diverse history shaped by its Indigenous inhabitants, European colonisation, and strategic geographic location, is known by many in the developed world as simply a vacation spot. With white beaches and blue waters, this is where the privileged come to relax and unwind, usually without any care for the local population and its culture, but there is much more to the people and its environment than sprawling all-inclusive hotels.

This sentiment was evident when Aruban locals took to the streets of the capital, Oranjestad, and interrupted the protocol for King’s Day, a day when the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands celebrates the King’s birthday. The protest was about the current environmental crisis that Aruba, like many other Caribbean nations, is facing. There was a particular focus on the unsustainable and unregulated growth of the hotel and tourism industry, exacerbated by the colonial impacts The Netherlands has had on Aruba and the rest of the ABC-SSS islands (Dutch Caribbean).

Police and officials try to contain the recent demonstrations in Aruba. Photos courtesy of the ‘No More Hotels’ movement, used with permission.

What started off as a peaceful protest quickly grew more intense as police and security guards shoved protestors to the ground, intimidated them with threats of arrest, called them inappropriate names, and challenged their constitutional rights of freedom of speech, expression and protest.

‘No More Hotels! Land Back!’

The protest was organised to urge the government to address the environmental crisis, halt the over-construction of hotels, make nature a priority, and demand climate justice for local Arubans.

With signs that read “No More Hotels,” “Land Back,” “Mother Nature is Screaming,” and even “Decolonise Aruba,” locals showed they are concerned about the current state of Aruba’s environmental well-being, and the future of their main economic pillar, tourism.

Indigenous Aruban activist and sustainability scientist Nigel Maduro, whose graffiti started the movement. Photo courtesy of the ‘No More Hotels’ movement, used with permission.

This movement was initiated in October 2023, when Nigel Maduro, an Indigenous Aruban activist and sustainability scientist, was arrested for graffitiing the words “No More Hotels” and “Land Back” all over the island's tourist areas. This caused a big debate among locals, tourists, and the government, as it brought awareness about the current mass tourism and the ways in which the island is systematically losing land to rich, foreign investors to build luxury hotels and condominiums.

In speaking with Maduro via WhatsApp, I asked what he hopes to achieve. It all started, he said, when he returned home from studying abroad. He was shocked by how “out of control” the hotel and tourism industry had become in Aruba and felt he had to do something about it: “I noticed that we are losing a lot of Indigenous land, and so I decided to spray-paint some words that I knew would push people to finally have discussions about this unsustainable development.”

The struggle continues; will change come?

Since then, Maduro and his comrades do not allow the chance to protest to pass them by. Another peaceful demonstration occurred on March 18 — Aruba's National Anthem and Flag Day — when locals in Oranjestad interrupted Prime Minister Evelyn Wever-Croes’ protocol speech. They displayed signs that raised awareness about the need to make nature a priority, and challenged the government's lack of action.

The fact that protestors faced censorship in this instance has caused Maduro to suspect the government is starting to feel the pressure. The movement is expanding, and more locals are searching for ways to express their frustration with the state of the hotel and tourism industry. This year’s King’s Day protest, for instance, saw even more participation than the one on March 18, proof of the increase in the number of locals being sensitised, getting involved, and taking their discontent to the streets.

Protestors (left and bottom right), positioned their placards at the entrance to Aruba's parliament (top right). Photos courtesy of the ‘No More Hotels’ movement, used with permission.

Soon after the March 18 demonstration, the government announced its support for the “No More Hotels” movement, and Minister of Tourism Dangui Oduber recently introduced a new policy whereby hotels that are not yet constructed will not be given the green light to be built.

While Maduro believes this is a step in the right direction, all-inclusive hotels are still being constructed and are due to open between 2024 and 2025. Locals are concerned that if these projects are completed, the island's infrastructure will be under threat of collapse since sewage continues to leak into the ocean because of the overcapacity of the existing system, coupled with the high volumes of waste being produced by the hotels.

Colonialism at the core of the challenges

The protests, particularly the one on King’s Day, have provided an opportunity to reflect on the island's colonial structures, as well as the inequalities between the Dutch Caribbean and The Netherlands.

The ABC-SSS islands cannot, for example, independently represent themselves at international climate change conferences like COP since The Netherlands is supposed to represent the entire Kingdom at these meetings. Yet, there has been no mention of the climate crisis status of the ABC-SSS islands at these conventions, nor are there any climate adaptation plans for the Dutch Caribbean territories.

Some of the protestors display their placards in front of a statue of Queen Wilhelmina in Aruba's capital, Oranjestad. Photo courtesy the “No More Hotels” movement, used with permission.

“The lack of representation gives the ABC-SSS islands a scenario where they are sitting ducks waiting for climate change to knock at their doors,” Maduro lamented. “Furthermore, there needs to be reparations on climate change, as our natural resources have been heavily exploited and extracted during colonialism. Our tropical forests and other natural systems acted as a natural resilience mechanism for climate change impacts, but because The Netherlands extracted most of it, we are left with very little.”

Sustainability is the overall goal

When asked what would be the ideal situation for Aruba five years from now, Maduro said that he hopes to see more protection of the island’s native trees and a complete de-growth process in the hotel and tourism industry — meaning, the prioritisation of quality of life, environmental sustainability, and social justice over endless economic expansion.

The de-growth concept encompasses various ideas and practices, including reducing consumption, reimagining work and leisure, rethinking production, addressing economic inequality, and restoring ecosystems. It's a response to the challenges posed by climate change, resource depletion, and social injustices exacerbated by the pursuit of growth at all costs.

Is this a tall order? Caribbean climate justice activists don't think so. It may, in fact, be the bare minimum — especially given how colonial masters exploited Caribbean resources beyond repair in order to develop their own countries.

Protestors in Aruba are advocating for de-growth. Photos courtesy of the ‘No More Hotels’ movement, used with permission.

“I would like to see us finally implementing the rights of nature in our constitution so we can safeguard our environment and our livelihoods,” Maduro explained. “I would like to see long-term actions on climate adaptation and resilience plans, so we can be more prepared for any climate disasters. I would like to see more sustainability and climate leaders step up to try to change the course of how we are functioning as a society. Finally, I would like to see more recognition of the Indigenous Peoples of Aruba, who have been protecting our environment for centuries, and even learn from our Indigenous ancestors’ ways of living with nature.”

The situation in Aruba mirrors much of what is taking place in the regional hotel and tourism industry, where over-construction and unsustainable development represent not just a threat to the region's fragile ecosystems, but also an injustice to its people.

With movements like “No More Hotels” reimagining tourism as a force for sustainable development, however, rooted in principles of equity, resilience, and respect for the environment, the Caribbean and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) may become better positioned to build a future where their environment remains an example of beauty, culture, and diversity for generations to come.

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