The Economy of Saba

In the past, Saba's economy was based on shipping and lacework but is now turning toward tourism

Photo credit: © MikeManning

The Economy of Saba

The island of Saba has come a long way since it was first discovered by a group of shipwrecked Englishmen who arrived in 1632. Presently, the tiny island still maintains a low profile compared with neighboring islands in the Caribbean and is relatively new to the tourism industry. But an increasing number of travelers have found this charming and ecologically rich region to be the perfect unspoiled Caribbean destination for nature-oriented travelers who enjoy a little peace and quiet.

Early Economy

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Dutch colonists living on Saba made a living through the cultivation of sugarcane and the production of rum, which was the island's main export at the time. Following agriculture, fishing took over as the main moneymaker for Saba. In the 1600s, Saba became a popular hideout for pirates, who came to the island from such places as Jamaica, to stow away spoils they had hijacked from other merchant ships sailing the Caribbean. The pirates were driven away from other islands in the Caribbean by colonists and found refuge on Saba's well-protected shores.

The legacy of the pirates carried on into Saba's history, and the men of Saba carried on the tradition of sailing and shipping in order to make a living from the sea. When Saba's sailors turned to legitimate trade, overseas merchants began eying them as efficient shippers and tradesmen. Saban sailors became employed as captains and sailors of both locally owned and foreign ships.

The men of Saba were at sea for such long periods of time, that Saba became known as the "Island of Women." While the men sent money back to the island to provide for their families, the women played their own role in Saba's economy. Since the men were gone for extended periods of time, the women on the island took up lacework, which is still a point of pride on Saban culture today. Saba lace, also known as Spanish lace, dates back to the 1870s, when Mary Gertrude Hassell Johnson was sent to a convent in Venezuela by her parents to study this intricate needlecraft.

The difficult skill of hand-stitching lace became extremely popular throughout the Caribbean islands and was a major export of Saba. When Hassell brought needlecraft back to Saba, the industrious women of the island turned their lacework into a thriving mail-order business by copying the names and addresses of the American companies that sent merchandise to the island, and writing them letters explaining their product and their prices. By 1928, Saban women were exporting around $15,000(USD) worth of lace products each year.

Present Day Economy

Saba has been rapidly developing both socially and economically in recent years. The island has seen a great increase in tourism, even though fewer than 25,000 people visit the island each year. Saba is relatively new to the tourism industry in comparison to other vacation destinations in the Caribbean. The island's airport, for example, wasn't constructed until 1963, and its pier wasn't built until 1972.

An increasing number of ecologically oriented travelers have made Saba their top vacation destination. The island boasts some of the best scuba-diving sites, rock climbing, and scenic hiking trails in the Caribbean. Diving, especially, has become a great asset to Saba's tourism market, and with the establishment of the Saba National Marine Park in 1987, the island is becoming more and more renowned for its eco-tourism. Saba's economy is also subsidized by some agricultural production, including livestock and the cultivation of vegetables, specifically potatoes.


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