Eco-Touring in Honduras

Island Dreams
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
June 2 2008 1:52 PM

Eco-Touring in Honduras

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Colonia Balfate and Colonia Policarpo Galindo are not in the guidebooks, and for good reason. They are conjoined shantytowns that spill upward along two steep tropical gullies into the green jungle above. A few of the 2,300 residents have homes made of cinder block or cement, but the rest make do with scavenged wood planks, corrugated tin, or sheets of plastic. Tawny dirt roads, raw as open wounds and lined with garbage, climb sharply from the entrance to the settlement. Water delivery to the community is sporadic, residents lack a sewage system or a health clinic, and neighbors complain that the colonias are crime-ridden. In March, the owner of a nearby botanical garden called them "a haven for thieves and robbers" in the local press after two hikers were robbed on his grounds.

Balfate and Policarpo Galindo are among the faces of modern tourism. These fast-growing slums are located not on the outskirts of some Third World city but on a resort-dotted island in the Caribbean—one peddling sun, sea, and piña colada dreams to a richer, colder world. Here on Roatán, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, direct flights from the United States are on the rise, a new ferryboat speeds crossings to the mainland, and cruise-ship traffic is ramping up. A terminal slated to open in 2009 will be able to handle 7,000 cruise-ship passengers a day. Cement trucks, feeding a construction boom in new hotels, rumble along the two-lane jungle road that serves as the island's main thoroughfare. As tourism grows, though, the island is killing off the flora and fauna that lured the foreigners in the first place while failing to enrich many Hondurans. From cruise shipper to backpacker, every traveler who sets foot on the island, including me, is contributing to this process.

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I came to Honduras hoping to unravel some of the effects of travel—because I travel and don't intend to stop and because, as a child of my time, I'm cursed with the burden of knowing I live in a planet-sized web of cause and effect. I can't abstain from this web anymore than a butterfly can refrain from moving its wings, but I feel drawn, nevertheless, to follow a few of its strands.

We hear a lot about eco-tourism these days, a term rendered nearly meaningless by travel-industry hype, but which the International Ecotourism Society defines as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local peoples." That's the kind of definition that begs more questions: Improves how much? Which local people? But it's safe to say that the businesses and well-meaning organizations promoting eco-tourism agree on one thing: If developing countries conserve their natural areas, revenue from tourism can make up for foregone income from other uses of the same land, such as logging, fishing, and farming. That income, in turn, will reinforce the will to conserve.

Often, though, this theory isn't borne out in real life. Consider Ecuador's Galápagos Islands, long the poster child for eco-travel, now turning into an eco-disaster. Between 1999 and 2005, the islands' GDP grew by a stunning 78 percent, two-thirds of which was due to tourism, according to a new study by J. Edward Taylor of the University of California, Davis. But individual welfare barely improved. GDP per head grew by a paltry 1.8 percent in the same period because the islands' population—drawn by the business engine of eco-tourism—grew by 60 percent. That ballooning population is taking an ever-higher toll on the fragile ecosystem.

In addition to being endowed with fertile jungle and turquoise sea, Honduras is a good testing ground for eco-tourism's central proposition. It's poor. It wants tourism, or indeed anything that will supplement an economy based on remittance payments, maquiladoras, and fruit. There appears to be an official will to conserve: The government has designated, at least on paper, 107 protected areas in which hunting and development are either limited or banned outright. Together, they make up an impressive 24 percent of Honduran territory and are home to endangered creatures, like the howler monkey and the manatee, and spectacular ones, like the scarlet macaw. My plan was to visit several of the national parks, meeting up with my parents along the way and ending our trip at the ancient Mayan ruins of Copán.

On a map published by the government-affiliated Honduras Institute of Tourism, nearly the entire 80-square-mile island of Roatán is part of a national marine park. But a staffer at a local conservation organization told me that while that was the plan, it wasn't actually the case. At the moment, only eight miles of shoreline, stretching little more than a mile out to sea, are officially protected.

Diving in that area earlier in the day, I had seen a hawksbill turtle, two and a half feet long, beating its flippers as it glided by like a prehistoric shadow. The hawksbill—locally called carey—is critically endangered, still hunted for its dark-and-light patterned shell. Some locals make jewelry out of it—a barefoot man had already tried to sell me a carey necklace on the beach. "One of the sad side effects of the tourism and cruise-ship industry is that it has generated a lot of illegal activity," said James Foley, director of research and development for Roatán Marine Park, which maintains a tiny beachfront office in the village of West End.

The colonias, a handful of which are scattered around the island, are another disturbing side effect.

"See those houses?" Rosa Danelia Hendrix asked me, gesturing to some 15 shacks scattered high on the hills, the latest expansions to Balfate and Policarpo Galindo. We were standing in the yard of the three-room yellow schoolhouse where she is principal.

"Three months ago, they weren't there. They don't have septic tanks. When the rains come, the waste will run down the hill and cause diseases," she said. The human waste, garbage, and sediment from the torn-up jungle also wash into the sea and onto nearby coral reefs, which are inside the supposed eight-mile protected area and which are home to hawksbills, bottlenose dolphins, and myriad fish. The sediment reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the coral, killing it, which, in turn, slowly kills the fish that live there.

The residents of the colonias come to the island from mainland Honduras because the tourism boom shimmers with the illusion of plentiful, well-paid jobs. "The island dream," mainlanders call it. "They confront reality when they realize they don't speak English, or don't have construction skills, and they can't get good jobs," Hendrix said.

To leave the colonias, I hopped in a minibus, and in 10 minutes I was back in West End, which is far from swanky but still a world away. It was my own island dream: a single dirt road running along a palm-fringed waterfront, lined with low-key restaurants, hotels, and dive shops. I stepped into an open-air beach bar called Sundowners and ordered a piña colada, and in no time the man on the next stool was telling me he hadn't paid federal taxes since 1967. The bar filled up, and as the sun moved closer to the sea, everyone turned to watch. It slipped over the edge of the earth, streaks of orange and pink filled the sky, and the black silhouette of a cruise ship sailed across the horizon.

Elisabeth Eaves is the author ofBare and a staff writer at Forbes.com.