Need a mood boost? A trip to Aruba is a Caribbean dream
This isn’t just any beach vacation, and not just because of the near-perfect weather and white sand beaches.
On Aruba, you won’t find an endless line of all-inclusive resorts and gated hotels walled off from the community. It’s easy to find remote beaches that look like no one has ever touched them. This island is statistically the happiest place in the world, which extends to travelers’ experiences.
Experts say that’s because Aruba does things a little differently. Aruba has a unique goal to make the island a “habitat for happiness.” In fact, that’s the country’s long-time slogan: “One happy island.” In addition to running studies about finances, economic growth and tourism, Aruba’s government also produces a “happiness index.” The results of last year’s study found that a whopping 78 percent of Arubans say they are happy. That’s higher even than Denmark (75.3 percent), ranked No. 1 in the United Nations’ 2016 World Happiness Report, which measured the happiness of 157 bigger countries. (The United States was No. 13.)
This matters, says Mike Eman, the prime minister of Aruba, because residents’ happiness is directly connected with travelers’ enjoyment. And Aruba is the No. 2 most tourism-reliant nation in the world, with a 91 percent tourism-specific gross domestic product. Eman says visitors love Aruba’s beaches and weather, but by far the biggest factor in their vacation satisfaction is hospitality.
“That sense of hospitality is naturally ingrained in the mood of the citizen,” he says. “If someone is happy with their own life, is content with their future and their family and the community, it also shines and reflects in the way they treat other people. We very much see a strong relationship with the satisfaction with their own life on the island and the way they also share this with anyone in their lives.”
The concern for its residents’ well-being led Aruba to limit the number of all-inclusive resort accommodations, with the goal of luring travelers to get out into towns and villages and spend on local culture and businesses.
As a result, Aruba is packed with busy, local restaurants, and it’s common to see travelers walking the streets and stopping into shops. Although there are some tourist-y areas—including the island’s west coast, specifically Eagle Beach and Palm Beach—travelers also can explore the eastern and less-developed coastlines via UTV or bike.
Despite the move to cap all-inclusives, Aruba’s tourism growth far outpaces other Caribbean islands. The nation saw a 14.3 percent increase in 2015, whereas other islands saw only 3 to 10 percent growth, according to the Happiness 360 Conference held there last September.
It’s crucial to integrate tourism with culture, says Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the World Tourism Organization. “We cannot build five-star hotels in three-star communities,” he says. “A country that’s not enjoyed by its people cannot and should not be enjoyed by its visitors.”
And travelers want culture, too.
One study by the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida found that ever more travelers want to experience authenticity—because that leads to connection with others, which the Happiness 360 Conference reported is a main source of happiness.
Sometimes, that authentic connection comes from meeting a friendly restaurant owner, but it also can come from historical tours of the city and educational visits to museums and galleries. Better connecting the visitors with the locals is also why Aruba is redeveloping a former industrial pocket of the island into a vibrant arts and culture center.
“We need to make tourism a greater force for good,” Rifai says. “Whatever we do in life, our core business should be to make this world a better place.”
ON ISLAND TIME
5 fun things that will make you happy while you’re on Aruba
1 VISIT THE PINK FLAMINGO ISLAND. Hop on a boat and visit the private Renaissance Island, associated with the Aruba Renaissance Resort and Casino in Oranjestad. This small, pristine spot features multiple beaches, including one that’s home to a permanent flock of pink flamingos. Set up a massage on the island’s Spa Cove, at the end of an isolated inlet surrounded by the ocean. Then unwind with a book in a hammock while the waves lap the shore around you.
2 TAKE A PARTY BUS TOUR. A lively way to tour the island is aboard the Kukoo Kunuku party bus, a colorful, whimsical, hand-painted vehicle that will pick you up at your hotel and take you to three different bar stops. The driver cranks up the music and hands out maracas, so the journey becomes part of the entertainment.
3 STROLL THROUGH SAN NICOLAS. Skip the touristy Palm Beach and instead visit this artsy coastal town, lined with quirky, historic buildings, restaurants, bars and art galleries. Stop by the famous Charlie’s Bar, where the walls are lined with treasures discovered underwater by scuba divers since the ’40s. Every Thursday, San Nicolas transforms into a mini Carnival celebration, with music, shows, food and crafts.
4 EXPLORE THE UNDEVELOPED SIDE OF ARUBA. Take a UTV off-road safari tour with De Palm Tours to see the rugged side of Aruba; instead of white sand beaches, you’ll see rolling red hills lined with cacti, dramatic rock cliffs and ancient stone structures. The three-hour guided trip takes visitors along the Andicuri Trail, to see the Ayo Rock Formations, gold mill ruins, the legendary Alto Vista Chapel, a breathtaking lighthouse and the Andicuri Beach, tucked in a cove between cliffs and said to offer the island’s best bodyboarding.
5 DINE WITH YOUR TOES IN THE SAND. Who says you can’t enjoy fine dining while wearing no shoes? At the unique Barefoot Restaurant, tables are spread out across the sandy beach with views of the ocean, so you can bury your tootsies in the sand while indulging in fine wine and food. Even indoors, the restaurant sets the tables amid large circles of sand.
The most revisited destination in the Caribbean (more than half of all visitors make return trips), Aruba offers a distinct combo of land and sea activities across its 70 square miles. SOME STATS:
Temperature: 82 degrees on average; 365 days of sunshine