Mountain biking on Aruba's wild coast

The island of Aruba predominantly has a ‘sun, sea and sand’ tourism destination image. The Arub Tourism Authority (A.T.A.) aims to diversify the Aruban tourism product by developing tourism niche markets. One of the opportunities lies in the development of mountain biking (MTB), which is considered a popular and growing sport amongst tourists and locals. In November 2018, the A.T.A. received a proposal from an experienced trail building company in Colorado (USA) titled: Aruba MTB Trails. Developing a niche market for mountain biking in Aruba. The proposal aims to design and build some 54 km of bike optimized MTB trails.

Although the plan matches with the ambitions of A.T.A., the Authority questions whether the plan is really as sustainable as stated in the proposal. This environmental impact assessment (EIA) assessed this issue by answering following research questions:

  • What are the impacts of the proposed MTB-trails on the (ecological) environment in the project area?
  • What are the cumulative impacts (indicative) of other user groups on the (ecological) environment in the project area?
  • What measures should be implemented to mitigate or compensate any ecological impacts assessed?

These questions were answered based on a thorough literature study, a field visit in November 2019, a field study of the Aruban Burrowing Owl and interviews with local stakeholders and experts. It could be concluded that: The proposed MTB-network is, in theory, an improvement for the ecological environment when compared with the present MTB-network, though additional measures are needed before speaking about a ‘sustainable’ MTB-network.

The length of the present 50+ km MTB-network is not so much different from the proposed MTBnetwork. The main difference lies in the fact that MTBs are assumed not to ride off-road anymore in the proposed situation. Off-road riding leads to the creation of informal roads and paths and results in soil erosion, habitat degradation and fragmentation, nest disturbances and (fatal) collisions with (ground) breeding birds and snakes, which are the most vulnerable species groups. Some of these impacts were observed while visiting the area.

In the proposed situation there are still species that would show moderate or substantial vulnerability to MTBs. This has to do with the fact that proposed MTB-trails are too close to potential breeding habitat of the Aruban Burrowing Owl and Least Tern as well as the potential for MTBs to collide with snakes between dusk and dawn. This requires rerouting of the proposed MTB-trails (spatial zoning) or closure of ‘problem’ trails at least during the most vulnerable months (breeding season owls and terns) or time of day (between dusk and dawn). These measures indicate, among others, that a trail network within the Tierra del Sol nature area, which is a stronghold for the endangered Aruban Burrowing Owl, is not realistic. Our use of ‘in theory’ in the conclusion above is intentional, as the sustainability-issue goes much further than the MTB-network. The main conclusion of this ecological impact assessment is therefore that: Sustainable development of Aruba’s wild north coast, can only be achieved with a nature and visitor
management plan (including MTB) for the area as a whole, that matches with the ambitions in Aruba’s Spatial Development plan 2019.

Present ecological impacts in the project area are substantial and concern habitat loss and fragmentation, damage to vegetation and soils, disturbance of fauna and to a lesser extent also the loss of individuals due to collision and pollution. Though these impacts can partly be attributed toMTBs, it is nothing when compared to the cumulative impacts of the multiple ATVs and UTVs which dominate the area (especially the lower terrace) with their numbers, speed, noise, off-road driving erosion and dust creation. The scope of these impacts goes beyond the project area and does not only relate to the ecological carrying capacity but also to the social (local community) and even psychological carrying capacity (tourists).

This situation is contradictory to the Aruba Spatial Development Plan 2019. This plan classifies the project area in two categories nature (e.g. Tierra del Sol) and nature and landscape with characteristics like silence, low-impact visitor-use, driving on formal paths and roads as well as restoration, conservation and development of natural values. This contradiction confirms the selfevaluation by the Ministry of Nature and Environment (Min. ROIM, 2018) in which the lack of law enforcement for the conservation of nature is regarded as one of the weaknesses, while not taking into account the ecological carrying capacity of Aruba risks the creation of an unlivable environment for generations to come. These observations make clear that sustainable development of the project area can only be achieved with a nature and visitor management plan for the project area as a whole. A list of 15 actions and measures is included in this report, which it is recommended should be integrated within the nature- and visitor management plan.

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