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Transformation of Paradise

Re-published from the original Frances Heyward Currin Master Thesis available at Louisiana State University Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Collection
Adapted by AboutUtila.com WebMaster to facilitated on-line navigation and reading.

Table of Contents Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 References ●  Appendices

Chapter 7

Effects of Tourism Development on Utila (Conclusions)

Population Growth and Composition

Economic Change

Cultural Landscape Change

Physical Landscape Change

Top of Page Effects of Tourism Development on Utila (Conclusions)

The perceived image of Utila as a place for economic opportunity has been the major catalyst for the recent, population, economic, landscape and environmental changes on the island. The perceptions are widespread throughout Central America and coincide with larger global expectations of growth in the tourism industry. The rapid transformation on Utila, if left unmanaged, will begin to challenge terrestrial and marine resources, as well as other cultural attributes of the island and may begin to undermine any long-term economic prospects for the island’s residents.

In the previous chapter a discussion of two recent and controversial groups began to illustrate the potential population and cultural consequences of the developing tourism industry on Utila. These groups coupled with general visitation rates have begun to create stress on the island’s resources. They have also begun to influence the island’s cultural and physical landscape as well as the natural environment. This chapter will discuss changes that have occurred as a result of the developing tourism industry especially those related to population, economics, landscape and environment.
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Top of Page Population Growth and Composition

During the last two decades island population has increased significantly and the composition has changed drastically. Since 1980, the population has virtually doubled. This date coincides with the national decision to push tourism as a means for economic prosperity. From the mid-1800s to the mid 1970s the total population of the islands grew at about 3.5% per year (Lord 1975; Stonich 2000). This growth corresponded with the approximate annual growth on the mainland (Stonich 2000).

According to the 1988 census, the annually growth rate for the Bay Islands had reached a high of 4.5% and increased to about 5% between 1988 and 1996 (ibid). The islands’ growth rate differed significantly from the mainland where population increase has never exceeded 3.5% annually (ibid). According to Stonich (2000), in 1991 Bay Island population was 24,000, with Utila contributing less than 10%, or about 2,200. Preliminary figures from the 2000 census placed Utila’s population at about 6,500, indicating a significant contribution from in-migration.

As might be expected with the recent population increases, population composition has also changed. According to Stonich (2000), the percentage of ladinos on the Bay Islands increased from 7% in 1970, to 12% in 1981, and by 1988 this group made up nearly 16% of the islanders (Stonich 2000). This acceleration of migration by this group has begun to shift the ethnic composition and distribution of settlements on the islands. Bay Islanders historically located their settlements along coastlines in a linear form (Davidson 1974).

However, as the mainlanders migrated to the islands they tend to live away from the existing settlements in marginalized areas, such as Camponado on Utila. This new pattern is related to their social status on the islands. For traditional Bay Islanders, social place is related to physical space. Those who have property on coastlines or nearby the water generally hold higher social positions than those who are relegated to marginalized areas such as swamps and other interior places. Thus, as migration continues ethnic composition and distribution of human settlements will continue to change.
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Top of Page Economic Change

As both Davidson (1974) and Lord (1975) chronicled, the Bay Islanders have developed a type of “economic resilience” throughout their history. Utila’s inhabitants have survived throughout periods of slavery, piracy, boom and bust cycles of the fruit trade, fishing, fish processing, and remittances. Indeed this economic resilience is fostered by the adaptability of the islanders. As Lord suggested with his critique of the remittance system, the islanders developed traits that helped them create and rebound from the inevitability of economic boom and bust cycles.

Although there has not been a bust cycle in the merchant sailing business per se there has been a world boom in tourism. Tourism, the world’s largest industry, is, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, growing at a rate 23% faster then the world economy (WTO 2000). Although some islanders still participant in the remittance system, many are now depend on tourism.

Susan Place (1988), in her work documenting the establishment of Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica, identified several consequences associated with tourism expansion in this region. Among the most important she pointed out were the socioeconomic differentiation of the local population, the placement of local populace into menial jobs, inflation, and increased foreign ownership of local resources (ibid). She also recognized that those who benefited most from the local community were the wealthier residents who could take advantage of expanding opportunities (ibid).

This is also the case on Utila. The gap between the rich and poor on the island continues to grow. The population of migrants from the mainland, as one might expect, make up the lower end of the spectrum. Those families who prospered most from earlier economic systems have been more able to take advantage of the opportunities presented by tourism. However, those residents who came later to the island or those who have not acquired the monetary or land resources from past economic endeavors are relegated to menial jobs in the developing industry. Foreign ownership of land and valuable resources has also become a problem as liberal investment policies are instituted by the national government to help facilitate the growing tourism industry.

Perhaps this new economic endeavor in tourism is a continuation of past sporadic trends. However, none of these past periodic expansions had the capability to so thoroughly undermine the island’s resource base or so rapidly change the availability of resources on Utila. Now the dependence on tourism is most evident and through continued policy expansions by the national government this industry will probably continue to grow. However, if tourism proceeds at its current rate and remains unregulated as it is now, the future of the island’s economic and environmental landscapes might be in jeopardy.
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Top of Page Cultural Landscape Change

Lord (1975) suggested that the first people to inhabit Utila proper located away from the shoreline and out of the range of the sandfly. However, because of lack of infrastructure and the islanders’ dependence on the sea for transportation and economic purposes they were forced to reestablished their settlement along the coastline.

This pattern dictated a linear settlement formation (Davidson 1974). As such, houses were normally built on stilts out over the water, so that they could not only have unobstructed access to the ocean and daily sea breezes but also they were out of the range of the sandfly and mosquito (ibid).

In 1974 Davidson noted that nearly 83% of the houses in the Bay Islands were, “on stilts with wooden floors, lumber walls, and zinc roofs”. He also noted that most houses were built in a box-like fashion with shuttered windows and porches that extended half way or completely across the front of the structure. Rain cisterns were also characteristic of Utilian houses before water systems where installed and still can be seen today (figure 7.1a (1973) and 7.2b (2001)).

Figure 7.1a: Rain Cisterns Found on the Island used for Collecting Water       Figure 7.1b: Rain Cisterns Found on the Island used for Collecting Water
Figure 7.1a and b: Rain Cisterns Found on the Island used for Collecting Water

Outhouses on stilts with walkways that extend over the water which were sometimes used as temporary docks are also characteristic of Utila’s landscape. These structures were present on Utila in 2001 but most were in great disrepair.

Family owned docks and boathouses were also an important feature to the many Utilians and remain part of the modern landscape. Other architectural styles adopted from the British West Indian Victorian house were also present on the landscape in the 1970s as seen in figure 7.2a. Originally the structure was a family owned house, however, it is now owned by an American and houses two separate businesses (figure 7.2b).

Figure 7.2a: Traditional British West Indian House Type found on Utila   Figure 7.2b: Traditional British West Indian House Type found on Utila
Figure 7.2a and b: Traditional British West Indian House Type found on Utila

The initial settlement of East Harbor, in terms of architectural style, has not undergone much change because of the developing tourism industry. However, beginning in the 1970s as North American influences increased with the initial development of the industry, local response to these foreign developers created, as Davidson’s put it, a “new American resident-tourist landscape” (Davidson 1974:125).

Most important to this landscape was the construction of tourist related facilities for lodging and meals. On Utila the first facilities built were incorporated into local houses. New structures related to the industry were not constructed until the 1980s. However, these facilities were constructed in fashions that resemble existing buildings and houses on the island.

Recently, as foreign, less expensive construction materials become more readily available, developers have shifted structures from wood (the traditional building material) to concrete blocks, brick, and cement (figures 7.3, 7.4, and 7.5).

Figure 7.3: Brick Hotel found near old Airport                              Figure 7.4: Concrete Structure Located in Cola del Mico
            Figure 7.3: Brick Hotel found near old Airport                         Figure 7.4: Concrete Structure Located in Cola del Mico

Figure 7.5: Hotel under Construction near old Airport
Figure 7.5: Hotel under Construction near old Airport

As foreign capital and foreign developers become more prevalent on the island, larger and more Americanized structures have appeared in East Harbor (figure 7.6). Since 1990, a few houses have been constructed away from the initial settlement of East Harbor, in a fashion that differs from traditional local styles (7.7 and 7.8). As the new foreign developments mentioned in Chapter 5 are marketed, this trend might be expected to continue.

Figure 7.6: New Structure built in 2000 near the center of Town
Figure 7.6: New Structure built in 2000 near the center of Town

Figure 7.7: House found near Blue Bayou                          Figure 7.8: House found on the Southwestern end of the Island                  
Figure 7.7: House found near Blue Bayou                 Figure 7.8: House found on the Southwestern end of the Island

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Top of Page Physical Landscape Change

In 1995 John Pigram (208) wrote, “Tourism is, to a large degree, a resource-based activity, interacting with natural systems and with the capacity to initiate far-reaching changes on the environment”. Tourism projects are not solely responsible when discussing environmental damage caused by human activity, however management of these issues has become central to tourism planning in both developing and developed worlds (Jenkins 1992).

As the industry has grown in recent years, island environments have incurred drastic development because these locations offer popular attractions for tourist. Tourism development impacts on these environments, such as Utila, are exacerbated, because these places are small and incorporate fragile ecosystems (Inskeep 1991). The Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize has become a popular diving site. In Carter’s discussion of this site, he discussed the deterioration that over-diving has caused to the local reef (Carter 1997).

Other environmental problems have been documented specifically associated with tourism such as: water pollution and subsequent decline of potable water, air pollution, waste disposal problems, ecological disruption, and land use changes (Lea 1988; Vega et al 1993; Stonich 1993, 1998, 2000). Because of the demands of an escalating human population caused by migration and the unfettered development of the tourism industry, Utila’s fragile ecosystem has incurred unprecedented stress and decline.

In this section I will discuss particular attributes of Utila’s industry that are at the root of these problems as well as the effects of their development.

As Davidson noted in 1974, implications for the most drastic landscape change occur when developers, both local and foreign, begin constructing tourism facilities and residential areas away from the existing community (Davidson 1974).

The most palpable alterations on Utila have included the clearing of vegetation, especially mangrove on the water front and along the outer edges of the interior lagoons, draining and land building in these wetland areas, the construction of larger more lavish facilities for boarding higher paying tourists, dredging canals for travel inside the reef, construction of larger docks so that the bigger dive boats can be docked, the building of artificial beaches along the northeastern shore and the planting of palms and other ornamental plants in this area, and the cutting of horse trails and hiking paths through the bush.

The first major physical landscape alterations related to tourism began in 1988 with the construction of Cross Creek Dive Center and Hotel. The facility was built on the interior side of the main road back into the eastern lagoon in an extensive mangrove stand (figure 7.9).

Figure 7.9: Location of Cross Creek Dive Center and Hotel on Utila
Figure 7.9: Location of Cross Creek Dive Center and Hotel on Utila
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

The area had been filled with mangrove and as the business expanded land filling projects took place as more area of the swamp was needed. Today this area not only incorporates Cross Creek Dive Center but residential houses have also been built (figure 7.10a and b).

Figure 7.10a: New Development in the Interior Lagoon Associated with Cross Creek Dive Center   Figure 7.10b: New Development in the Interior Lagoon Associated with Cross Creek Dive Center
Figure 7.10a and b: New Development in the Interior Lagoon Associated with Cross Creek Dive Center

The majority of the tourism-related businesses that have developed on Utila since 1970 have been constructed on otherwise unoccupied land showing that tourism has begun to have an effect on the island’s physical landscape and land-use patterns. However, these facilities tended to stay within the existing settled area of East Harbor until the 1990s, when expansion into uninhabited parts of the island began.

The expansion incurred during the 1990s has caused more striking alteration and can be directly linked to both the foreign owned residential developments that have appeared on the island in recent years and the building of the first two resorts. A discussion of the recent foreign owned residential developments in Chapter 5 began to describe some of the landscape alterations that have taken place. Destruction of the iron shore on the northeastern portion of the island and the removal of the natural vegetation in this area are but a few of the changes.

Figure 7.11: Planters Constructed for the new Development site on the Eastern Shore
Figure 7.11: Planters Constructed for the new Development site on the Eastern Shore
Figure 7.12: Coral Walls Constructed for the new Development site on the Eastern Shore
Figure 7.12: Coral Walls Constructed for the new Development site on the Eastern Shore

As shown in figures 7.11 and 7.12 this area is now lined with palms and other ornamental decorations such as the coral walls and planters. Scenes such as this are a reminder of the close connection Utila has with the United States, because such landscape ornamentation is popular in beach communities in the United States. The development on the southwestern area of the island, in an otherwise uninhabited location, is currently only accessible by boat. Plans are being discussed to cut a canal through the interior of the island (in a seasonal swampy region) and connect it with Oyster Bay Lagoon, thus creating direct sheltered access for the residents.

Ecological damage, such as salt water intrusion into the lagoon as water is siphoned out for the canal and large amounts of sediment deposition on either ends of the canal have been addressed during recent island discussions. Currently, the Bay Islands Conservation Association, along with many local Utilians, has organized to make a protected area of the interior of the island directly behind the settlement to prevent the canal from being constructed.

Along with the developing foreign residential communities, the construction of two resorts has also been responsible for physical landscape change. Davidson (1974) recognized a pattern to expanding tourism industries and noted that significant changes occur when larger resorts, which cater to higher paying clientele with services beyond just room and board are built, away from the existing settlements.

As mentioned in Chapter 5 Utila has two such resorts, Utila Reef Resort and Laguna Beach Resort. These resorts were constructed in uninhabited parts of the island. Utila Reef Resort is located near Pretty Bush, farther away from the lagoon, and has not been very profitable. In 2001 no visitors had been reported in a least a year. Because it is smaller than Laguna, very little vegetation was cleared was necessary for its construction (figure 7.13).

Figure 7.13: Utila Reef Resort Located West of Oyster Bay Lagoon
Figure 7.13: Utila Reef Resort Located West of Oyster Bay Lagoon

However, Laguna Beach Resort sits at the edge of the lagoon and large mangrove stands and other beach vegetation were cleared for its construction. Because it is only accessible by boat, the owner constructed a large dock well into an area were the reef is present (Figure 7.14).

Figure 7.14: Laguna Beach Resort found at the mouth of Oyster Bay Lagoon
Figure 7.14: Laguna Beach Resort found at the mouth of Oyster Bay Lagoon

As the resort’s reputation grew, the owner wanted to be able to moor his boats in the lagoon instead of at the larger docks in East Harbor. However, the entrance to the lagoon is very shallow, less than three feet, so dredging was required for his boats to have access. Now, it seems, large amounts of sediment from the lagoon are being deposited on the reef, destroying the one of the things that brings customers to the island. In addition to the two resorts that are located beyond Oyster Bay Lagoon, in 1995, a local man began constructing a large hotel in Blue Bayou. However, to construct a hotel of this magnitude in this area of Utila, extensive cutting of the interior mangrove was needed, as well as land building into the lagoon (Figures 7.15a and b).

Figure 7.15a: New Hotel Built near Blue Bayou  Figure 7.15b: New Hotel Built near Blue Bayou
Figure 7.15a and b: New Hotel Built near Blue Bayou

The hotel remains unfinished because of lack of funds and water damage incurred during Hurricane Mitch. Infrastructural transportation improvements, such as the construction of new roads and especially the new international airport, are also having negative impacts on the physical landscape. On Utila, roads are constructed with cement and coral (figure 7.16).

Figure 7.16: Traditional Road Construction on the Island
Figure 7.16: Traditional Road Construction on the Island

After an area is cleared and lined with wooden two-by-fours, a layer of coral is placed between the wood as a foundation. Then cement is poured on top of the coral to make a smooth surface. The road being constructed in Figure 7.16 is privately owned and funded. It leads to an area on the south side of Stewart’s Hill where a foreign developer has planned a new residential community. Construction of the community had not been set as of the summer of 2001. The men constructing the road said that the coral being used came from the new airport construction site.

Before the coral at the new airport site was available, or large quantities of cement were affordable, sand and gravel were taken from Pumpkin Hill Beach along with coral from the exposed reefs and iron shore. This has caused increased beach erosion in these areas (McNab 2001). This type of impact has been noted elsewhere in the Caribbean and has had long-term impacts on the beach landscape (Patullo 1996).

The new international airport was a “hot topic” with the locals during the summer of 2001. It is located at Swan’s Bay on the northeastern tip of the island (figure 7.17 and 7.18).

Figure 7.17: Location of the New International Airport on Utila
Figure 7.17: Location of the New International Airport on Utila
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

Figure 7.18: New Airport under Construction on Utila
Figure 7.18: New Airport under Construction on Utila

Figure 7.19: Natural Fresh Water Wells on Utila
Figure 7.19: Natural Fresh Water Wells on Utila

Before construction, this area consisted of lush secondary tropical forest and also incorporated natural fresh water wells (Figure 7.19) (Vega et al 1993), it was the breeding ground for the island’s iguanas as well as the nesting area for many of Utila’s birds (ibid). In the conservation strategy prepared by Tropical Research and Development, Inc, this area was recommended to remain undeveloped because of its ecological importance to the island’s potable water and its endemic species (Vega 1993).

However, in 1999 an area approximately 1,700 meters long by 250 meters wide by 2 meters deep (some 425,000 meters squared) was bulldozed for the construction of the runway. The tropical forest was split in half, causing a condition known as fragmentation. When fragmentation occurs, important resources for local species may not be evenly distributed and corridors allowing animals to access different resources are no longer available. As a result many of the birds that use to nest on Utila are leaving and the iguana’s are in decline.

Construction stopped temporarily during the summer of 2000 leaving the unprotected bare soil exposed during the ensuing rainy season. Soil loss in areas of heavy construction has been documented as being as great as 490 ton/hectares annually (Wolman et al 1967). While forested area losses can be as little as .02 ton/ hectares annually (Smith et al 1965). The reefs on this side of Utila are some of the most famous because of the natural caverns that line the shore and most well preserved because they have been hard to reach. Now they are in danger of being damaged by the erosion and sediment discharge from the airport.

Roatán experienced similar problems when minor work was done to extend its runway, as sedimentation damage to the coral reef was documented 30 meters into the sea (Jacobson 1992). When the new airport is finished international aircraft can land on the island and bring more tourists per visit. Of course air and noise pollution associated with international airports will also be present.

When the equipment for the construction of the new airport was deposited on the island a new road was cut along the eastern coast. Large mangrove stands and tropical forest made up this part of the island. The new residential developments followed the construction of this road into this uninhabited area.

The new airport has also been connected with East Harbor by the small footpath leading from Bar in The Bush to Pumpkin Hill. However, it has been widened and paved, making it the island’s first “highway.” The airport road cleared a section of forest nearly 10 meters wide and several kilometers long making it the widest road on the island. According to Stonich (2000), the principal forces behind habitat destruction on the Bay Islands are related to, “deforestation, inappropriate agricultural practices, highway building, and unsound tourist-related construction.” These forces have been at work on Utila and, as shown above, they have occurred in a relatively short period of time.

Land use and land cover alterations, not solely related to tourism, are also important in this discussion. In 1993 Tropical Research and Development, Inc. (Vega et al 1993), conducted a comprehensive study of land use and land cover on the Bay Islands. Twelve principal categories of land cover and land use were established by the research group for the entire archipelago. These include primary forests, secondary forests, mixed forests, coniferous forests, mangroves, wetlands, brush, pastures, permanent agriculture, annual agriculture, water areas, and urban areas.

All of these specific areas have been affected by human activity on the islands. Less than two percent of the islands’ primary forests remain and within this two percent many of the most desirable trees have been extracted (ibid). The mangrove and wetland areas, until recently with construction of large hotels and other tourism facilities, had not been adversely affected (ibid). As suggested by Tropical Research and Development (TRD), Inc., the two most common land cover types are pastures and secondary forests.

TRD has stated that the islands have experienced most of its land cover clearing in the last 15 years because this is the time these land cover types became popular on the islands (ibid). Pastures are the most undesirable land use option for the islands because activities associated with pastures, such as cattle and horses, yield little productivity in the Bay Islands. These activities also cause an increase in soil compaction and erosion (ibid). In table 7.1 Utila’s land use and land cover categories are illustrated.

  Area (Hectares) Percent of Total Land
Primary Forest 0 0
Secondary Forest 802.2 19
Mixed Forest 0 0
Coniferous Forest 0 0
Mangrove 741.2 17.6
Swamps 2303.5 54.6
Brush 0 0
Pasture 206 4.9
Permanent Agriculture 69.2 1.6
Annual Crops 0 0

Table 7.1: Land Use on Utila, 1993

Utila, according to the above study, has high proportions of land that are poor for agriculture (Vega 1993). Therefore the TDR has suggested that eighty-two percent of the islands become protected areas (ibid). Aside from being of poor agricultural quality these lands also are valuable for water resource conservation as well as flora and fauna conservation (ibid).

Tourism, as exemplified in this section, has caused significant change in multiple areas, for Utila. The residents of Utila, only a small island in a nation undergoing extensive global economic transformations, are faced with enormous challenges as they try to broker tensions between economic development and personal conservation. It will become increasingly necessary for Utilians to stay aware of development as the industry continues to grow. Care must be taken so that the two most important attractions to the island, its culture and its environment, are not lost and completely destroyed.
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