Offshore or on, more visitors dive into Bonaire's attractions

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Bonaire has been known as a diver's paradise for decades. Year after year, diving enthusiasts from around the world flock to the protected waters surrounding this Netherlands Antilles island. 

With more than 80 dive and snorkel sites, as well as 24 dive shops, scattered across Bonaire, diving is available day and night, whether from the shore or by boat.

Bonaire's coastline has been a protected marine park since 1979, so snorkelers and divers must pay usage fees -- $10 and $25, respectively -- to enter the waters.

Resorts popular with divers include the Sand Dollar Condominium Resort, Captain Don's Habitat and the Buddy Dive Resort. The three properties welcome thousands of divers each year, all of whom want to get in as many dives as possible during their stay.

My stay at the Sand Dollar proved comfortable. Although guest units are situated to best catch trade winds, bedrooms are air-conditioned nonetheless. And guest kitchens come fully equipped, but an on-site restaurant serves three meals a day.

The diving and snorkeling right offshore was excellent; the Sand Dollar is adjacent to the Bari Reef, which is home to more than 300 species of fish.

Shore dives to the reef are one of the main selling points of the resort. 

Andre Nahr, owner and director of the Bonaire Dive & Adventure dive shop at the Sand Dollar, said he sees many repeat divers.

"The divers like Bonaire very much," he said. "They like the people of Bonaire and the ease of diving here. Any place they enter the water, they can experience a beautiful dive."

The Sand Dollar offers Ocean's Classroom, a discovery program for kids that combines snorkeling with hands-on lessons about the ocean and its flora and fauna.

What's on, onshore

Diving aside, visitors to Bonaire are increasingly interested in what's offered onshore, as well. In terms of accommodations, the island -- even with just eight hotels and a ninth, an all-inclusive Divi resort, to be built in 2009 -- can fit most budgets, from backpacker to high-end.

Visitors can bike, hike and drive across the diverse island. Activities include tours of the 13,500-acre Washington Slagbaai National Park wildlife sanctuary, where birds, lizards, goats, donkeys and iguanas can be viewed in their natural habitats, as well as windsurfing at Lac Bay, beach horseback rides, sea kayaking and bird-watching.

Kralendijk, Bonaire's capital and largest town, home to historical buildings and a growing nightlife scene, is a magnet for visitors, especially when a festival is on.

A boom in cruise-ship calls is boosting both Bonaire's economy and its leisure travel market visibility. For the coming 2007-2008 tourism high season, local tourism officials are forecasting more than 160,000 cruise passenger arrivals. 

But controlled growth, especially with cruise ship calls, is essential, according to Ronella Croes, Bonaire's tourism director. 

"It's very important that Bonaire not be taken over by the large cruise ships," she said. "We are marketing to the smaller ships from 100 to 300 passengers in size."

That said, Croes acknowledged that many jobs will be created by the tourism boom over the next few years, but training locals on its importance, and in the service culture, will also be key.

"Having friendly, professional people greet and serve our visitors is the most important thing we can do," she said.

For more information or reservations at the Sand Dollar, call (800) 288-4773 or visit www.divesanddollar.com. For more on Bonaire, visit www.infobonaire.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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