Opinion: Why we should be watching out for our Saban economy

Dear Editor,


The last 3,5 months have been an unreal time for all of us. The world has changed in a profound manner, which have left a lot of us wondering how the future will look. As a community we have dealt with the immediate health threat of Covid19 and emerged unscathed. At least from a physical health perspective.

In a lot of parts of the world people have been moving on to address the economic challenges that are a result of this pandemic. On Saba this discussion is also taking place. It is in times like these that we get confronted with our economic dependence on the outside world.

The Saban economy is founded on only three small pillars: our medical university, tourism and some fishing and agriculture. All other businesses cater to either one of these sectors or to the public sector. Either directly or indirectly. Every activity on Saba which is not funded through one of these sectors – either directly or indirectly through taxes generated from these sectors – is basically funded by money from the central Dutch government.

Since halfway March Saba has been closed for tourists and the fast majority of the medical students have left the island. And no significant change is expected for another couple of months. Businesses, employees and independent entrepreneurs are currently surviving on savings and some compensation from the Dutch government for their loss of income and/or their fixed business expenses. Basically our island is currently completely funded by the Dutch government.

The bottom line is that currently practically all economic activity is dependent on the public sector which is financed by the Dutch government. At the school they teach the children of the nurse, the government employee, the construction worker and the cashier. At the hospital they care for the teacher, the government employee, the construction worker and the supermarket staff. But all the construction worker can build is the school, the hospital, the government office and the supermarket, which sells its products to government workers. In the end it is just public money coming from The Hague being pumped around on the island, which is obviously unsustainable.

State Secretary Knops in his letter on June 19 states that “it is crucial for the Caribbean Netherlands to get tourism (…) going”. He also calls for “diversification of the economy (…) by creating other employment”. In these uncertain times nobody has a fail proof plan to revitalize the economy. But just wait until we can pick up where we left off in March is not enough of a plan. Saban people are proud of their independent nature and together we should find ways to create an economy again. Let us remember Winston Churchill’s words “never let a good crisis go to waste” and call upon our island government to use this time to come up with plans to not just revive our economy, but to also expand and diversify it!

Andries Bonnema

Owner and General Manager of El Momo Cottages


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  1. If you look back on the history of Saba, you will find many attempts to diversify the economy, starting in the plantation years with agricultural products, Saba lace, shoemakers, the sulfur mine, hat making, the leather factory. The inherent issues with all of these attempts are small labor force, the cost of getting products to market, and the whims of Mother Nature.
    The world economy has moved on. People are not willing to pay the price for quality cottage industry goods because they can buy cheap goods made by inexpensive labor in the global workforce.
    You bemoan the fact that Saba is supported by the Dutch government. That has been the case for donkey years. Yes, tourism has put money in the island government coffers, helped us contribute to the financial well being of the island, and yes, it will return again, and yes these are hard times for everyone. Hard times come and go. Saba will survive and nobody is going to go hungry.
    What sort of diversification are you looking for? How is it that you decry the fact that the economy is supported by the Dutch government and yet you feel it is the governments responsibility to pull you out of this hole, with expansion and diversification that create issues of stress on the economy and resources available on island.? What are your suggestions? Is it even possible for the island government to overcome the inherent issues of available land use, Mother Nature’s whims, small workforce, and expense of getting products to market?
    Entrepreneurship is a risky business, all sweetness, and light when things are going great but there is always a downside.
    Anna Keene
    Diverse entrepreneur

  2. René Caderius van Veen

    Dear all,
    Of course, issues like these are discussed a lot by people on Saba but as usual preferably with friends and family at home or behind a bar (when possible).
    It is a good initiative to raise questions and share concerns also more in public. Thanks Andries.

    Apart from income through the medical university and from tourism and a little by exporting the results of the fishery, there is nothing than just the support from the national government. It is a very good thing that the sector of agriculture is increasing and that may help a lot of citizens by lowering food-prices and at the same time increase the quality of food. In macro-economy, it is not a factor because it will not be an issue for export and therefore for the island as a whole. But nevertheless, it is one of the most important contributions for society.
    The (commercial) medical university appears to be a very risky thing. Not just because of the fact that there are now about 20 students on Saba, even not so much because it is questionable whether the US will be able to deal with the coronavirus in a time of a few months which will make that we do not welcome visitors nor students from the US. Also the last years the number of students has decreased from about 500 to about 200. This already has an enormous impact on house-owners and their opportunity to rent apartments and rooms. But also on bars, restaurants, shops, etc. many parents of students bought cottages as holiday houses and how long will these be empty apart from the fact that many refused to rent those to tourists.
    How to deal with the very logical decrease of values and prices of rentals and houses in general especially when you have a mortgage?
    The reduction since a couple of years of the number of students, the fact that the “university” is for sale makes clear that income from there is not guaranteed anymore.

    It is a good thing that companies will start to increase their cooperation.
    So far however I do not see any other direction than improving the numbers of tourists.
    The values of the island are the richness of underwater nature (although also threatened by mainly climate changes) and of course the wide variety on the island of ecological zones, the elfin forest, and therefor for tourists who love hiking and nature.
    Since Wolfgang died, the promotion of diving as he has been doing successfully in Germany, might stop.

    In general, more focus on “soft’ tourisme is necessary (already a long time). For instance in the Netherlands Saba is only represented every year in the Vakantiebeurs which however is a general trade fair for holidays in general and there a stand for Saba – how nice ever – is not the focus of the general tourist.
    Far better is the annual “Fiets- en Wandelbeurs” in Belgium and in the Netherlands where hiking is focused on, and which is attracting especially hikers.
    Fairs like these can offer tourists who have been on Saba already a perfect way to tell others about their experiences. This will also reduce costs for then it is not necessary that much anymore to send people from the Touristbureau to the Netherlands.

    But much cheaper is promotion on websites such as https://www.duurzaam-toerisme.com</a> where the Caribbean and let be Saba are not mentioned yet!
    Or https://www.naturescanner.nl, or offer arrangements on https://www.eigenwijzereizen.nl/themas/natuurvakantie.html etc. etc.
    On https://www.divingworld.nl/cybergate/sitebase.asp?pid=13&sid=1&searchtext=+Saba+&mc=154814&dc=192469 Saban hotels are represented but not on https://www.vakantieduiker.nl/ and on https://www.divingholidays.nl you will just find Juliana’s hotel and nothing more.
    A lot can be done by tourist marketing that is focused on these target groups: nature, hiking and diving!
    And we will have to do so for there are no reliable other sources of income for this island Saba!

    René Caderius van Veen

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