Honduras: Roatan – The Modernisation of an Island

When you get the opportunity to visit a place again and again over a period of years you get to establish some friends, favourite haunts and your perfect day. Sometimes more interestingly though you see how it changes.

Paradise

Paradise

In 2005 I visited Roatán, Honduras for the first time. I was away travelling at the time and wanted to learn to dive. We had a non-diver in our group so we’d been advised to choose Roatan over Utila in the Bay Islands, as it had a bit of a beach. We arrived and it was hot, sunny and all we’d hoped the Caribbean would be. We stayed in West End, which, to the uninitiated, at this point in time was a funky little backpacker corner of the island. Bars, a beach some dive shops and cheap accommodation with lots of friendly, open people to chat to, both tourists and locals. There were a few ex-pats from the US and Canada who had sought out the island as an escape from home and everyone else seemed to be there to dive.

There were few shops, and after the supermarkets, they were mainly small affairs selling local handicrafts, beachwear and sarongs. The night life was buzzing and friendly and the main street was a sandy beach road.

Increasing tourist trade

Increasing tourist trade

Slowly over repeated visits I noticed changes, minor at first, then more drastic. The island opened up slowly. The quality of tourist changed from backpacker with occasional holidaymaker to a wealthier holiday maker. There was a increase in migrants, most particularly from the US but once Italy opened up a new weekly charter flight, in Italian migrants too. By the time it got to 2008 the cruise ships had arrived. Every morning when there was a ship in port, at around 10.30 / 11 there was an influx of a very particular type of tourist – the cruise shippers, wanting no more than to scrape the surface of the island and move on, feeling cultural or tanned.

The businesses along the shore front also began to change. Some of the smaller, more local outfits remained, managing to trade in on the more moneyed trade and expand a little. There was also the influx of some flashier burger restaurants and shiny new bars. By 2009 there was a shop selling dive equipment and the mall, always slightly deserted was beginning to reflect an airport with duty free perfumes.

Traffic increased drastically and the beach road started to show wear and tear. The quiet seaside settlement atmosphere disappeared as trucks started rumbling down the tiny road to aid the construction of the shiny bars and new resort areas. Sand was removed from the beach for construction and to repair the road which was getting very pot holed. Walking became a precarious pursuit; dodging between the potholes and the almost constant stream of white taxis making their way down the street, continually beeping at possible passengers as they went. Since this they have now begun construction on a beach road aiming to improve sanitation and transport.

Marine park signage - sadly not always adhered to

Marine park signage – sadly not always adhered to

The environment has also suffered. Roatán is surrounded by fringing coral reef which is part of the wider Mesoamerican barrier reef. This coral reef – a vital part of the environmental structure of the island is suffering the impact of the increased activity on the island. More tourists, mean more divers. Whilst the vast majority of divers are environmentally aware and dive shops are, in general, working closely with the local marine park to maintain standards, there are always a number of people who won’t respect the environment. In additional the increase in tourists is also bringing more non-divers to the island which means more snorkellers. Anyone can snorkel without having any training in keeping hands and feet and fins away from the delicate corals underneath. Indeed, at the islands popular West Bay Beach they can be seen standing on the reef – a past time which is causing untold damage to the fragile life below.

The reef is also suffering physical erosion from sand and grit which washes from the land into the sea, from all the construction work happening on the island. An increase in tourists also means an added pressure on sewage and sanitation systems which are desperately lacking on the island.

Mangrove - a vital part of the eco-systems

Mangrove – a vital part of the eco-systems

Mangroves are being cut down to allow resorts to be built by the shore. Despite it being illegal without proper permits, big developers are taking the hit in the meagre fines which follow and providing a beach for their customers. Mangroves form a vital part of the environmental structure of the island. They prevent the shoreline from washing away, physically holding it in place during times of heavy rain. They also act as a filtration system, preventing nitrates from washing into the ocean and as the reef changes from a coral dominated reef to an algae dominated reef the results of removing this filtration system are clear.

With these changes there is now a more seedy side to West End. For the first time in 2009 I saw prostitutes, escorting their rich, older male tourists around the bars. Taxi drivers became more difficult to handle as they tried to take more than the agreed fare for short journeys and hassled constantly for business.

The attitude from some locals subtly changed and they sought to avoid the more common tourist haunts and didn’t go out quite as often.

Amid all this the infrastructure of the island was struggling. The roads were getting more crowded, the sewage and sanitation systems weren’t built to cope and the electric went out at regular intervals, sometimes for days as the electricity company couldn’t service all parts of the island at once.

The beach road in West End, Roatan

The beach road in West End, Roatan

The government of Honduras has tried to pursue the cruise ship trade as a way of bringing much needed dollars into a very poor country. The problem with this is that the money doesn’t get to where it’s really needed. The cruise ships pre-organise tours with the bigger operators, their passengers have already breakfasted before leaving the ship and return in time for lunch. Some of them might buy water and a trinket or two but the real money goes to the government and to the port authorities and the tour operators who can manage to take on a significant number of customers.

The character of the island is changing and the travellers who once ventured to this rural idyll will no longer find it. Instead it’s up and coming as a key tourist destination. It remains to be seen if the government will protect the environment, direct the revenue effectively and make sure that the infrastructure is there to support this growing industry.

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