Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Two Faces of Ambergris Caye, Belize

There's two sides to Belize's Ambergris Caye. The 'Isla Bonita' is growing up in a material world.
Within minutes of landing at the Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, my husband and I are in line waiting for a connecting flight to Ambergris Caye.  It’s an informal process with no boarding pass, just a list of names on a clipboard. Nor are there pre-assigned seats. When one plane fills its fourteen seats, it taxis off and another takes its place.

The tiny Cessna pulls up to the door of our waiting room. We enter first and the pilot invites Dan to sit in the empty co-pilot seat. I wedge myself in place behind him. The size of this plane reminds me of my Subaru Outback; in fact the purring engine and smooth ride also brings my car to mind. We’re quickly aloft, the skies are clear, the views are blue and in fifteen minutes, as promised, we’re touching down on the Caye.

Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize and the country’s main vacation destination. San Pedro is the island’s only town and if you believe Madonna in her 1987 hit song, San Pedro is la isla bonita. Like southern Mexico, the Caye is a subtropical mix of mangrove forests and lagoons supporting 200 species of birds, all under the protection of the largest living reef in the northern hemisphere running down its east coast. 

But things have changed since Madonna’s song rocked the airwaves a generation ago. There’s another side to Ambergris Caye that’s emerged. The Caye is growing up in a material world. 

For example, there are more cars in San Pedro than there were even ten years ago. While many of them are golf carts, most are gas-powered and are as charming as a fleet of lawn mowers. But despite the modern-day scars of growth, hardly unique to Belize, the town has appeal.  

As a beach town, San Pedro is ultra casual. It may not be the hippy commune it once was, but it’s not glitz either. There are few upmarket shops. Expansion of that sector will need more well-heeled foreign retirees. And they might come and invest in the expanding condominium developments. But in spite of the chic, low rise, low-density, developments, San Pedro does not look like a town poised to boom. The island’s capacity for growth along the coast is finite. Or is it? 

One of our guides told us that the government is selling off plots of the shallow limestone shelf extending from the Caye. Authorized or not, developers are starting to dyke the shelf, drain it, fill it with sand, and then build on it. Voila, land.  It’s a worrisome trend for people concerned about the Caye’s fragile ecosystem. Environmentalists as well as responsible resort owners who rely on marine ecotourism worry about the reef. Eighty percent of all tourists to Belize visit the marine parks.  
Tourists usually come to Ambergris Caye to visit Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the Blue Hole, the latter a natural phenomenon believed to be the world’s largest vertical underwater cave. Both sites are part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The designation is not only supposed to protect the area from development, but also from commercial fishing. The variety of colourful fish is impressive as is the quantity. At first plunge, I found myself snorkelling a few meters above a barracuda the size of a sofa.

You can swim with nurse sharks. 
Nevertheless, despite the pleasure it still affords, a few years ago, the marine park made UNESCO’s endangered list, joining Florida’s Everglades also named that year. The committee cited mangrove cutting and excessive development as the main problems putting the reef at risk.

The reef lies half a mile offshore and runs the entire length of the Caye (if it circled the Caye, the island would be an atoll). And while folks are rightly concerned about hurricanes, they also know that the reef can cut the size of a tidal surge by half.  Still, no one is complacent and the church in central San Pedro remains well attended. A long time resident told me he has a hurricane plan in place. Coordinated amongst his extended family, it includes a central meeting place with thick concrete walls and emergency supplies of food and water. So far, their gatherings have ended in family cook-outs, good times, though spotty electricity.

The Caye’s development has been a big issue for a decade. Concerns are both about the  explosion of vacation properties as well as the government’s sale of whole islands on the bay side which faces the mainland. Dr. Colin Young, a natural scientist of Belize’s Galin University, says that one of several issues facing Belize is "ineffective institutional and legal frameworks that inhit enforcement of environment regulations on developers. The enforcement agencies lack financial resources and personnel to enforce regulations."   

To some, the environmental cost is especially painful. Birder, dive instructor and author Elbert Greer (“Bird Watching with Bubba, A Guidebook to Birds of Belize”), told me that whole islands on the bay side of the Caye have been sold by the government and this happens quietly. It’s done before a protest can be launched. The small islands, like tufts of green hair on a limestone shelf are nesting sites for some of the region’s loveliest water birds, the White Ibis, the Roseated Spoonbill, among others. “I’ve seen people tear down the trees. I don’t take people birding there anymore.”  

One such island was sold to Leonardo di Caprio. The good news is that di Caprio, an acknowledged environmental activist, intends to build a resort in partnership with Four Seasons based on sustainable design and environmental conservation. But not all developers have such goals.  

Sadly, with a taxpaying population so small (the population of Belize is about the same as the number of people who work for Toyota Motor Company worldwide), there are choices that need to be made. Even discounting government's lack of regulatory enforcement, not unusual in developing countries, there is only so much public funding to go around after servicing a large debt.   

A good part of that public money admittedly comes from tourism and especially from the 9% tax the government collects from the trade. Business in Ambergris Caye however would like to see more of that money turned back to improvements on the Caye. For example, the lagoon-side road is always in bad shape even without hurricane Richard in 2010. Only one street in town has a sidewalk, partly. On a recent radio talk show, a Caye resident complained that a sewer project begun three years ago by the government had yet to be completed. In the meantime, the septic lagoon serving his community has overflowed because of the rains. 

If you don’t know Ambergris Caye as a largely unpopulated island, its village community sustained by coconut plantations and fishing, then you may not take much notice of the development. The hotels and condominiums creeping along the coast are typically a string of single to four-storey structures, many artfully designed, and often dotted with coconut trees and couched in well landscaped grounds. So far, the visual effect is quite the opposite from a Cancun-like block of high-rise hotels. Outside of festival time, there are no crowds here and this lends a quality of exclusiveness to the experience.   

The beach is public and you can walk for miles unobstructed.  Resort attendants rake the sand within their boundaries and collect debris washed to shore, the litter of sea vessels and distant islands, often trapped in the sea grass. The beaches are sandy and inviting but the sea grass is so thick, and dredging officially disallowed outside of small portions, that snorkelers have more fun in the water than swimmers. To the government’s credit and thanks to the cooperation of the resorts, the sea grass largely remains in place, in spite of complaints by uniformed vacationers. Sea grass is a natural sieve, holding back sediment from washing into the sea and trapping pollutants. Sediment clouds the water and makes a barrier to photosynthesis, a chemical action that coral needs to live.  

Many of the Caye properties are owned and managed by foreigners who have banded together to form an association. As a group they have been effective in lobbying for training programs for local staff, people who seek work but are poorly equipped after graduating, or not, out of a struggling and underfunded education system. Most on the association’s mind these days is their recent lobbying efforts, in cooperation with mainland groups, to oppose plans around offshore oil exploration. With the 2010 gulf oil disaster still in mind, people are extremely worried about what even a small oil spill could do to the reef. 

So what have I learned about Ambergris Caye?  

Ambergris Caye has two faces, each on its path to its own destiny. There is a breathless quality to the pace of some newer developments here, reckless disregard for government regulations and the lagoon environment. At the same time, there are citizen action groups, feverously working to educate the public and lobby the government to enforce its own rules, however slim. And in the mix there are environmentally aware resort managers, like at the Xanadu Resort, maintaining their plot of sea grass, planting trees, educating their staff, and integrating sustainable and green practices into the management of their properties.  

So while the quiet island village is no more, condominium developments are not all bad, and certainly Trip Advisor reviewers don't think so in that Belize's resorts have won several 2013 Traveler's Choice Awards. Still, informed, mature travelers vacationing in Caye can choose to walk or rent electric vehicles over gas-powered ones. They can celebrate the sea grass rather than complain about it to their friends. After all, part of the Caye’s future is owned by visitors like ourselves.   

Literally, "ambergris" means the spit of sperm whales, a gray bubbly mass that washes to shore when whales migrate through these parts. Possibly named by fishermen, the concept doesn’t have much cache for travel agents. But it’s just another example of the two sides of Ambergris Caye. Depending on what you think about the Caye’s development, the future of Ambergris Caye will either be your Isla Bonita or whale spit.

The Phoenix Resort

A lovely condo in Ambergris Caye