Economy of Saba

The economy of Saba, smallest island of the Netherlands, has always been limited by its small land mass (five square miles) and low population (currently about 1500 people). Because Saba is a dormant volcano with rocky shores and only one beach, tourism was slow to develop. However, the island has become known for its eco-tourist opportunities, such as scuba diving, rock climbing, and hiking. The tourism industry now contributes more to the island's economy than any other sector.

Economic history

Possibly, Saba's first settlers were a group of Englishmen who shipwrecked on its coast in 1632. However, it is unknown if they remained on the island throughout this decade. Around 1640 Saba was settled by Dutch colonists from nearby St. Eustatius. As the century progressed, Saba became a regional haven for illicit trade. Agriculture, including sugar cane, cotton, tobacco, and indigo were important first industries, as well as fishing. The first enslaved Africans arrived on Saba by at least the 1650s, together with sugar production.

Saba Lace 2012
Saba Lace, Harry L Johnson Museum, Windwardside, Saba, Jan 2012.

Because many of Saba's men were gone at sea for extended periods, the island's women took up lace making in the late 19th century. When international mail service became available in 1884, women began selling Saba lace to American consumers by mail order. Saba Lace exports grew in importance over the subsequent decades, reaching sales of $15,000 (US) per year by 1928.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Saba began developing the infrastructure necessary to support tourism. The addition of Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, built in 1963, made travel between Saba and other islands more accessible. Likewise, the 1972 construction of a pier in Fort Bay has enabled ferry service between Saba and Saint Martin, as well as docking of small cruise ships.

In 1987, Saba's coastline and surrounding waters were designated as the Saba National Marine Park. Because of regulations to help conserve the marine park's reefs and other aquatic life, it has remained a healthy, thriving ecosystem. Scuba divers became increasingly attracted to Saba, since its reefs have been spared the damage suffered by many reefs throughout the world.

Current economy

Tourism has been steadily increasing in recent years. According to Saba's official tourist bureau, in the first quarter of 2005 tourist arrivals to Saba totaled 7358. Current estimates place the number of yearly tourists at around 11,000. The largest number of tourists come from the United States, but more and more Dutch and other European travelers are making Saba a destination.

Agriculture still contributes to the economy, primarily livestock and vegetables, especially potatoes. Saba Lace continues to be sold at shops on the island. The Saba University School of Medicine has grown in importance as it has expanded, contributing about 200 jobs (directly and indirectly) and $4.8 million (US) to the GDP.


All the statistics in this section come from the Census Bureau of Statistics Netherlands Antilles.

Gross Domestic Product by sector, Saba (mln ANG)

Year Government Enterprises GDP
1996 11.8 15.2 27.0
1997 16.4 15.4 31.8
1998 11.1 21.4 32.6
1999 11.2 22.0 33.2
2000 10.5 21.5 31.5
2001 9.5 22.6 32.1
2002 9.0 23.2 32.2
2003 8.8 24.8 33.6

Businesses per Industry
This information is according to the Business Census 1998. Due to the CSB's criteria for defining a business during this census, very small businesses were not counted. Certain other groups were excluded, such as small independent farmers and fishermen, market vendors, and independent taxi drivers. The census also does not include government departments and services or foundations completely subsidized by the government.

Agriculture and mining: 1
Manufacturing: 2
Electricity, gas and water: 1
Construction: 3
Trade: 24
Hotels and restaurants: 20
Transport and communication: 5
Financial services: 5
Business services: 2
Education: 1
Health and social work: 0
Other services: 5
Total: 69

See also


Caribbean guilder

The Caribbean guilder (Dutch: Caribische gulden) is the proposed currency of the Caribbean islands, and constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Curaçao and Sint Maarten, which formed after the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles on October 10, 2010. As of January 2018, the Caribbean guilder has not been introduced.Since 2018 banknotes and coins, which are not in production pending decision on the currency, now require replacement and there were only two years of Antilles guilder remaining and there was still a possibility that the islands could opt for the dollar or euro instead.

Culture of Saba

Saba's culture bears the influence of its early settlers, among them the English, Scottish, Africans, and Dutch. Because Saba measures only five square miles and has a treacherous coastline (making invasion difficult), its population has always been small. Today its population numbers about 1500 people, with approximately 250 being expatriates. Many of the non-Sabans teach at or attend the Saba University School of Medicine.

Although archaeologists have found evidence of early Amerindian presence, a group of shipwrecked Englishmen in 1632 found the island uninhabited. During the colonial period, Saba's ownership changed hands many times between the Spanish, English, Dutch, and French. Although part of the Netherlands Antilles since 1954, Saba's official language (along with that of Sint Maarten and Sint Eustatius) is both Dutch and English, given the fact that the majority of Sabans speak English as their first language. English has been added to Saba's school curriculum by the Dutch government as a result.

Most Sabans are descended from a handful of families. Hassell, Simmons, and Johnson are common surnames. Early settlers relied on farming, fishing, sailing, and shipbuilding for their livings; pirates sought haven there, too. They passed down a hardy nature necessary to survive the island's conditions.

Because of its difficult terrain (the island is a dormant volcano rising out of the sea), modern conveniences were slow in coming to Saba. In 1938, construction began to connect its four villages with a road – a feat which engineers had said was impossible due to the island's perilous landscape. Full-time electricity only became available in the 1970s. Its houses have a quaint, cottage look with red roofs. The lifestyle is still slow and old-fashioned with little nightlife, even with the emergence of an ecotourism industry in the last few decades. Sabans are proud of their history of environmental conservation, calling Saba “The Unspoiled Queen.”

Saban women continue to make two traditional island products, Saba lace and Saba Spice. Saba Lace is handstitched lace, which the island's women began making in the late 19th century and built into a thriving mail-order business with the United States. Saba Spice is a rum drink, brewed with a combination of spices.

As in other Caribbean locations, Sabans throw an annual Carnival. Saba's Carnival takes place the last week in July and includes parades, steel bands, competitions, and food.

Catholicism is Saba's predominant religion. Other faiths practiced on the island include the Anglican Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Wesleyan Holiness, Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Judaism.

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