Open letter: Dear Tourist,

Thank you for choosing our Caribbean islands to spend your vacation. We do everything we can to get you here and offer you an unforgettable holiday. With our smooth ad campaigns about beautiful white sandy beaches, wonderful sunny and warm days all year round, the friendly and kind local people who go out of their way to make your stay as pleasant as possible, a warm and colorful culture, plus a range of five-star hotels with attractive prices, we provide you with an advance holiday feeling that you can dream of all year round. And it works. Our islands receive thousands of travelers from Europe and the United States and tourism has gradually become the main source of income for the CAS Islands.

Dear tourist, I understand that your visit to our islands is mainly about pampering yourself and your fellow travelers. That's why you’ve chosen our islands; partly because of the sun, sand, and sea that you most likely don't have at home right now. But I do want to draw your attention to the following. Like everything else, a thriving and growing tourism industry also has its downsides. In addition to being a single source of income – which makes the islands vulnerable to disasters such as hurricanes or the COVID-19 pandemic – mass tourism also has many negative sides if the government does not respond adequately. Let me explain.

Do you know that you, along with thousands of other tourists who visit our islands, produce a huge amount of waste and wastewater? After taking a refreshing dip in the salty water of the Caribbean Sea, you want to rinse off the suntan lotion and sweat from your body and wash your hair and then enjoy an excellent, extensive, and exotic meal in a five-star restaurant. The wastewater this generates sometimes ends up directly in the sea. This is obviously not good for the marine environment and the coral reefs there. The remaining wastewater is discharged to a sewage treatment plant. However, the governments do not use the money you and the other tourists bring in to ensure that the islands do have enough sewage treatment plants and the existing ones are no longer in top condition. As a result, the wastewater is not adequately treated, but rather, discharged into the same sea that you love to swim in. The governments of the islands often know for a long time that the quality of the sea water along the coast and also along the beaches of the hotels is quite bad. Of course, the government won't warn you about that because that would be bad advertising; instead, critical reports end up in drawers and are never officially released.

The enormous amount of waste produced by the thousands of tourists – in addition to the inhabitants of the islands – must also be sent somewhere. This concerns tons and tons of the various kinds of waste generated by activities related to tourism, including your stay in one of those luxury hotels, but also the waste from cruise ships that visit our islands and which, once docked, are bound by international treaties to deliver their waste(water) to local authorities who, in their turn, must take care of further processing. Not so long ago, this waste was just dumped back into the sea on the other side of the island. Afterwards, landfills – also known as waste dumps – were introduced. But this, too, happens with minimal policy. Waste separation? Nope. Application of the polluter pays principle? Nope. Basically, just dump all the waste into a big hole. That has been going on for years, such that the hole is now full, and the waste has continued to grow into a mountain. A waste mountain in which the compression of household organic waste creates methane gasses that spontaneously ignite and cannot be extinguished easily. Waste in the form of car tires is regularly set on fire and produces black toxic smoke for days. The local people – who must live under these smelly and toxic exhaust fumes and whose basic right to a clean environment is violated daily – are sacrificed for your comfort as a tourist. Their rights are not important. It would become too expensive if their rights were also taken into account; the price tag would become too big and you wouldn't want to visit as a tourist anymore. It's just a simple calculation.

The aforementioned problem is specific to small island economies such as Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten, amongst others. There is even a separate scientific research field on Small Island Developing States, or SIDS. The SIDS were first recognized as a distinct group of developing countries at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit) in June 1992. As developing small island countries, SIDS tend to share similar sustainable development challenges. These include small but growing populations, limited resources, remoteness, susceptibility to natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes), vulnerability to external shocks (e.g., COVID), excessive dependence on international trade (e.g., tourism), and fragile environments (e.g., coral reefs, mangroves, and endemic plants and animals). Due to their small size, their growth and development are also held back by high communication, energy, and transportation costs; irregular international transport volumes; disproportionately expensive public administration and infrastructure; and little to no opportunity to create economies of scale.

What now, dear tourist? What is the solution? First of all, I don't want to stop you from having a nice holiday on one of our beautiful islands. But I do want you to be aware of the so-called 'ecological footprint' of your island holiday.  I don't ask you to calculate everything to the gram, or millimeter, or dime, but I would like you to investigate how the island you want to go to deals with the environmental impacts of your stay. If you discover that the environmental management on the island is not what you would like, you can do a few things. You can choose another destination that has better regulations in place. You can also actively point out to the government of the island you want to visit that you want them to maintain the high standards that you expect in terms of waste and wastewater management. If they cannot ensure this, or they cannot indicate which steps they will be taking in the short term, you can protest. And you can make your findings known via social media. Governments are very sensitive to negative messages on social media. They know how such messages can explode and become hard to control. So, by asking critical questions, you can force the governments to do something about the issue. And that's what must eventually happen. What you and other tourists contribute to the economy of our islands should ultimately benefit the people who live and work here, and also make your stay as pleasant as possible. It should not be the case that only a handful of politicians and businessmen benefit from tourism and the rest are left marginally on the sidelines.


I wish you a very happy holiday, dear tourist.

 1 CAS islands: the islands of Curaçao, Aruba and (Dutch) Sint Maarten








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