It was only a matter of time before Roatan, Honduras, became a tourism hotspot. With the glorious Mesoamerican Reef at hand, the island offers some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling in the world, not to mention gorgeous white beaches, rainforests, mangroves, and crystalline turquoise waters. Last year, 1 million travelers—ten times the 100,000 annual visitors it had 15 years ago—journeyed to this sliver of paradise, which sits 40 miles off the northern coast of Honduras and is the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands.
Although Roatan is hardly overdeveloped—more than 50% of the island remains under forest cover, and visitors can still enjoy empty beaches and a delightfully low-key vibe —the growth has been enough to threaten the island’s exquisite natural resources. Patches of forest have been cleared for hotels, water pollution threatens the reef, and the increase in tourism has brought more garbage, cars, and sewage.
That’s why several local conservation groups have come together to help put the island’s tourism industry on a path to sustainability. Since 2012, the Roatan Geotourism Stewardship Council, the Go Blue Central America Geotourism MapGuide, the Coral Reef Alliance and the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI) have trained more than 450 people and 80 businesses in sustainable tourism best practices. Those numbers account for about 50% of the island’s tourism trade.
Thanks to a new evaluation tool created with the Rainforest Alliance’s help, these organizations will be able to assess the sustainability performance of restaurants, hotels, dive shops and tourism businesses on Roatan and the other Bay Islands. “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,” says Manlio Martínez, director of the Roatan Geotourism Stewardship Council.
It’s a big step forward, Martínez adds, since the concept of sustainability is pretty new in Roatan. Until recently most houses and businesses there didn’t have water or power meters, so nobody knew—or cared—what their consumption was. Recycling was also a rare practice, and conserving the reef was not a priority since “many locals didn’t even know what the coral reef was,” notes Martínez.
Resort owner Barbara Wastart, who moved to the island from the United States nine years ago to open the Upachaya Eco-Lodge & Wellness Resort, a hotel and three-acre nature sanctuary, has already seen changes in local attitudes and practices. “People on the island are opening their eyes to their environmental footprint,” Wastart says. “We tourism entrepreneurs are working closely with the Roatan Marine Park, we care about where the garbage is going, we are denouncing illegal activities like poaching—in general we are getting stronger in our commitment to the environment.”
Protecting the environment just makes good business sense, Wastart says. “It will help make our island more appealing to the increasing number of tourists looking for sustainable business.” She adds, “Roatan is different from other islands; you have to travel really far to see natural resources like these. We have keep Roatan a sustainable and low-density destination.”