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A Deeper Dive into the Appeal of Bonaire, the Least Visited But Most Unspoiled of the ABC Islands

If you have clients who dive, Bonaire is probably a familiar destination —

this smallest of the Dutch Caribbean “ABC” islands is one of the top destinations in the world for scuba diving and snorkeling.


Among non-divers, however, the response may be more “Bon-where?” — even among clients who have traveled to nearby Aruba and Curacao. Bonaire tourism officials would like to change that.


Bonaire had 11,928 stayover visitors in September 2023, a 19.3 percent increase over the same month in pre-pandemic 2019. The island also has seen strong growth in cruise visitors, with an expected 186 ships visiting in 2023 — a fact that has presented some challenges to Bonaire’s claim to be a magnet for sustainable tourism —“earthonauts,” in the parlance of the island’s marketing firm, who come to the island to help preserve local coral reefs, tend to the native donkeys, and give back to nature in other ways.


Completely surrounded by a protected marine park, Bonaire is hailed by groups like the Professional Association of Diving Instructors for its “amazing coral reefs and long forgotten shipwrecks.” Hotels like Buddy Dive Resort and Captain Don’s Habitat regularly feature on lists of top Caribbean dive resorts, and the island’s roads are dotted with yellow-painted rocks indicating prime spots for diving right off the beach.


However, Bonaire officials stressed to visitors attending the inaugural Bonaire International Tourism Conference in September 2023 that the theme of the conference — Preserving Our Hidden Gem — doesn’t mean discouraging visitors or even keeping Bonaire “hidden” to non-divers. “Quality over quantity” is how tourism officials described Bonaire’s goal for attracting new visitors, notably those with deeper pockets and a taste for new destinations and adventures.


Asked during the meeting how many five-star resorts Bonaire currently has, one tourism expert stated, “none.” That’s debatable; what is certain is that Bonaire has a number of upscale resorts that have appeal well beyond visitors just looking for a place to crash between dives.


Where To Stay
The boutique Bamboo Bonaire, for example, is an oasis of zen lush with tropical foliage. Several of the 13 guest rooms have private plunge pools, all have swaying hammocks, and the grounds are dotted with buddha statues, gongs, and tinkling chimes. One of the island’s best restaurants, Chefs, is ensconced behind the resort’s high walls.
The Harbour Village Beach Club is effectively a gated luxury community, complete with beautifully appointed rooms and villas, a stretch of sandy private beach, impeccably maintained and perpetually peaceful grounds, a marina, multiple swimming pools, and excellent seafood on the menu at the ship-like La Balandra Restaurant & Bar. Likewise, the Delfins Beach Resort boasts the Brass Boer, perhaps the premier waterfront restaurant on the island, as well as a collection of 148 guest rooms and 20 luxury villas and a full range of resort amenities, a pool and beach bar, and a new dive center.


Each of these resorts is fully equipped to accommodate divers, but non-divers looking for an upscale island vacation won’t feel like they’re missing out, either. With just 1,370 hotel rooms island-wide, Bonaire retains a small-town vibe where diving and dive resorts remains king, but tourism planners are looking to a future where up to one in three hotels rooms is four-star or higher.


Bonaire is among a minority of Caribbean destinations where fewer visitors arrived from international destinations between 2022 and 2023; on the other hand, inter-island arrivals — presumably including a number of international visitors coming from Aruba and Curacao — rose almost 25 percent.


It is becoming easier to get to Bonaire from North America: WestJet launched new nonstop service from Toronto to Bonaire in December, flying every Tuesday to the island through mid-April of 2024 — the first-ever nonstop flight from Toronto to Bonaire. In the U.S., United Airlines will add two additional weekly flights from Newark International Airport on Jan. 10, 2024, with Sunday and Wednesday service joining existing Saturday flights through April 24, 2024.


What kinds of clients should travel advisors send to Bonaire? First and foremost, of course, people who love to dive: about one in three Bonaire visitors say diving is the primary reason for their visit. But Bonaire also appeals to clients looking for a laid-back, “old Caribbean” experience; the island is a marked contrast to the highly Americanized Aruba and the rapidly growing Curacao, for example, retaining its small-town feel while still offering some top-notch accommodations, Dutch Caribbean culture, a solid dining and nightlife scene in the town of Kralendijk, and unspoiled natural areas just outside of town.


Even clients who are content to stick with the more familiar Aruba or Curacao should be encouraged to consider a day trip to Bonaire, where they’ll find a diversity of activities including beautiful beaches and snorkeling on Klein Bonaire, unique donkey and flamingo sanctuaries, and the tiny town of Rincon, home of the Cadushy rum distillery, where visitors can pick up a bottle of spirits derived from the island’s abundant cacti. Renting a car is the easiest way to explore the island, which is safe enough that even solo travelers should feel at ease striking out in search of new adventures. https://bonaireisland.com

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