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Santa Maria Island Economy

The island’s economy passed through much of the cyclical evolution associated with the Azores. Initially, the economy was based on the production of wheat and wood, until the 16th century, evolving slowly to a subsistence economy based on cereal crops. This was also a period of pottery production and export of the fine red clay to artisans on São Miguel (for the production of the same).

Generally isolated from the traffic between the New World and Europe, the island depended heavily on agriculture until the 20th century when US forces established the Airport in Ginjal. It became an international link after 1944, taking on a central position in trans-Atlantic air traffic during the mid-20th century. The island became dependent, almost absolutely, on the airport: first, during the phase of construction (when Marienses were involved in the construction or support) and later when air traffic control in the north Atlantic corridor was based in Santa Maria (FIR Oceanica de Santa Maria). For many decades, the airport at Santa Maria was the gateway to and from the Azores until the construction or renovation of smaller fields on other islands. Evolutions in the aviation industry (primarily of long-range airliners) removed the importance of Santa Maria as a trans-Atlantic stop and other airports (such as those in Lajes, Horta and Ponta Delgada) as better equipment and logistic advancements diminished the importance of activities on Santa Maria. The European Space Agency (ESA) established a satellite tracking station at the end of the 20th century, rekindling the debate on the island’s dependency on the aviation sector.

In comparison to the other islands the economy of Santa Maria never attained the same level of dependence on raising cattle and dairy production. Regardless, agriculture is still the predominant activity in the municipality, occupying 47.6% of the land. This activity is usually confined to small ventures, involving forging plants, small pastures and permanent holdings. Secondary industries are dominated by civil construction, sawmills, tile and block factories, artisan/handicraft producers, and fishing. There are several commercial species of fish in the waters around Santa Maria: these include Sheepshead, Vejas, Red Snapper, Grouper, Wrasse, Mackerel, Anchovies, Needlefish, and Frigate tuna.

As with the rest of the Azores, tourism makes-up an important tertiary sector associated with nautical activities such as sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing, sport fishing (Tuna, Swordfish, and Grouper) and scuba-diving, beach activities, hiking, and (for some) rabbit hunting. São Lourenço, Praia Formosa, Maia, and Anjos are known as summer tourist centers, attracting visitors to the beaches, natural pools, summer cottages, and festivals.