Industrial activity in the Netherlands Antilles is overwhelmingly concentrated on one product: oil. Originally a center for oil refining—the Shell refinery on Curaçao is one of the biggest in the world—diversification in the 1970s expanded operations into transshipment and storage, with the terminal at Bullenbaai becoming one of the largest bunkering ports in the world. But the oil glut in the 1980s, followed by a world-wide recession, hit the island hard when Shell sold its stake in the refinery in 1985. The operation was rescued by the intervention of the Antillean government, which bought the plant and negotiated a lease agreement with the Venezuelan state oil producer, Petróleos de Venezuela. In 1995, after a series of short-term leases, a 20-year agreement was signed. The industry faces heavy competition from the United States and continues to suffer the vagaries of a fluctuating world oil market, but the long-term partnership with Petróleos de Venezuela and strengthening international demand for oil suggest a relatively healthy forecast.
Prospects are even better in Aruba. The reopening by Coastal Oil (U.S.) in 1993 of the massive Exxon refinery at Sint Nicolas at the eastern end of the island, the bedrock of the island's prosperity since it was opened in 1929 and which had been closed in 1985, provided an enormous new source of jobs and foreign exchange and has considerably spurred the economy. Production capacity is around 150,000 barrels per day.
Manufacturing is a limited sector in both countries. In the Netherlands Antilles the industry is concentrated almost entirely on Curaçao and Bonaire, with products including paper, plastics, and textiles. The tariffs that protect the sector, however, are under attack from importers and whether these industries can survive their removal remains to be seen. The 68-acre export-oriented industrial " free zone " around Hato International Airport in Curaçao, founded in 1984, is devoted almost entirely to oil processing. Bonaire's 9,000 acre industrial salt farm is managed by the Antilles International Salt Company and has become a significant part of that island's economy.
Aruba's manufacturing base is more diversified and includes the repair and assembly of machinery and transport equipment, crafts and art collectibles, and animal products. The island's free zone has shown dynamic growth, with exports through the program increasing by 60 percent in the 1994 to 1997 period and reaching an earnings total of US$247 million.