Coastal communities and tropical islands are classic destinations for those seeking a warm, relaxing vacation. Roatan, Honduras has long been one of these popular destinations, with fantastic scuba diving and snorkeling on the Mesoamerican Reef (the second largest barrier reef worldwide), white sand beaches with clear, turquoise waters, and lush, tropical rainforests. The island of Roatan is located 40 miles off the northern coast of Honduras and is the largest island in Honduras Bay.
Tourism to Roatan and destinations alike is steadily increasing. Just last year alone, 1 million vacationers travelled to Roatan; 15 years ago, annual visitors only totaled 100,000. What does all this mean for the wellbeing of this island and those that inhabit it? Despite the fact that Roatan has yet to become overdeveloped and although a healthy portion of the island remains covered in forest, the expanding tourism business compromises much of the island’s natural resources. Roatan experiences deforestation to make room for hotels, water pollution, and influxes of cars, garbage, and sewage.
Developing a Strategy to Increase Sustainable Tourism Practices
Several conservation groups have joined forces, in an attempt to preserve the island’s natural resources and lead its tourism industry on a sustainable path. Beginning in 2012, the Roatan Geotourism Stewardship Council, the Go Blue Central America Geotourism MapGuide, the Coral Reef Alliance, and the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative have educated over 450 people and 80 businesses in ways to make their tourism practices sustainable.
By implementing a new tool, these local conservation organizations have the ability to evaluate the sustainability performance of local businesses, such as restaurants, hotels, and dive shops. The tool is known as The Rapid Sustainable Destination Diagnostic, and was developed in 2013 by the Rainforest Alliance, the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative, Sustainable Travel International, Honduras’ Ministry of Tourism, and the Geotourism Council. The process evaluates Roatan’s sustainability performance on 5 major sectors, including tourism planning and governance, economic factors, the ability to preserve cultural heritage, social issues, and environmental protection. Manlio Martinez, Director of the Roatan Geotourism Stewardship Council commented on the new tool, saying, “This tool will allow us to measure the environmental impact of local tourism businesses and determine, with hard evidence, the tangible changes in their performance.”
The lack of sustainable practices in Roatan stems from a lack of education. Many community members were ignorant of sustainability issues until these initiatives were put into place. Most houses and businesses had only recently acquired water and power meters – and before the meters, nobody cared – or even knew – about consumption. Recycling practices were essentially nonexistent, and coral reef conservation was not a topic of discussion, mainly because “locals didn’t even know what the coral reef was,” Martinez comments.
The organizations’ efforts to redirect the island on a path to sustainability have not gone unnoticed. Barbara Wastart, a resort owner on the island, has seen noticeable differences. She moved to Roatan 9 years ago to start her own hotel and nature sanctuary, known as the Upachaya Eco-Lodge & Wellness Resort. “People on the island are opening their eyes to the environmental footprint,” she comments. The local business owners on the island are working together with the Roatan Marine Park to strengthen the island’s commitment to a sustainable environment.
The Roatan Marine Park is a grassroots, non-profit organization founded in 2005 that continuously works to educate tourists as well as the local community on reef ecosystem conservation and ways they can contribute. The organization was created by a group of local dive operators and business owners uniting to protect the island’s vulnerable reef system.
Increasing the island’s environmental awareness may be beneficial for more than just the resources on the island – tourism business could increase as well. By protecting the environment, Roatan would be able to cater to an increasing number of tourists who seek lodging in sustainable hotels or a bite to eat from sustainable restaurants during their stay. Additionally, the overall health of the economy of Honduras is dependent upon tourism in Roatan, as the island itself brings in over half of the 1.8 million visitors to Honduras.
For more information on how you can make your travel practices more sustainable, visit the Go Blue Central America website (http://www.gobluecentralamerica.org/) and scroll down to the bottom under “Action Opportunities” to volunteer and make a difference.