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Family Islands lead in sustainable tourism

Family Islands lead in sustainable tourism

Low-key destinations find alternatives to mega-resorts

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 1, 2009
January 1, 2009
Steve Cotterill and Gillian Beckett

In recent years, sustainability has become common parlance in the world of tourism. Whether it is providing support economically for the local community or using alternative forms of energy, sustainability is an attribute that is more frequently making an appearance on the wish list of the modern, morally responsible traveller.

As tourism boomed through the ’80s and ’90s, gigantic developments sprang up throughout the world catering to an increasingly voracious demand for variety and immediate gratification among the baby boomer generation. Although highly profitable for the owners, these resorts were often entirely divorced from the fortunes of the local community and could be devastating to the environment.

The Bahamas depends on tourism as the mainstay of its economy, accounting for roughly 50 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product. The tourism trade on the archipelago depends on the environment; pristine beaches, dazzling coral reefs, and thrilling big game fishing are the types of attractions that lure the tourist dollar. The disruption often caused by large developments to the local fauna and flora coupled with a surge of imports to support increasing visitor numbers can inflict irrevocable damage on the environment—from global warming to litter-strewn beaches.

As an antidote to these ills, a few of the Bahamian islands have become home to a much more modest type of vacation destination. These smaller resorts, with low environmental impact and high contribution to the local economy, are now well placed to cater to a new breed of eco-conscious, culturally sensitive consumers who are reacting against prescribed ideas of resort vacationing.

Long Island
Canadian chef Pierre Fortier left the wintry climes of his homeland for the tropical beaches of Long Island in The Bahamas several years ago, opening Chez Pierre Bahamas in 2002. The unspoiled remoteness of the island, which is situated approximately 160 miles southeast of Nassau, was both a blessing and curse to Fortier when he first chose it as a location for his low-key resort. Although it was a perfect setting for those seeking isolation, infrastructure in the Out Islands can be a hindrance to any attempts at development. Fortier had to think of alternative ways to find energy and supplies, marrying necessity with ecological practices.

“We had to be self-sufficient in every way,” says Fortier, whose resort uses both wind and solar power. “The wind is free, the sun is free and, as a result, my rates are lower.” The main building, which houses Fortier’s restaurant, a small gift shop and office, is the main power hub with battery power linkup to the resort’s six guest cottages on the beach. “We power by a small wind generator for our hot water needs,” says Fortier. “For refrigeration and the freezer we use (liquid propane) gas.”

It took an investment of $825,000 and four years of planning, designing, communicating with local contractors and construction before Chez Pierre Bahamas was finally open for business on February 14, 2002.

Each beach cottage is built on stilts and is designed with an open concept, with screen enclosures, to take full advantage of the subtropical breezes. While the summer months can be particularly warm, each cottage is equipped with a pedestal fan. The bathrooms and showers in the cottages use a mixture of fresh and salt water to conserve both water supply and costs.

“We did a lot of homework and looked at a lot of literature on how to build in the Caribbean,” says Fortier. He notes that island architecture incorporates eco-friendly functions into its design, such as using high ceilings and open rafters to facilitate the circulation of cool ocean breezes, eliminating the need for air conditioning. “There’s all kinds of little tricks that the old Bahamian (builders) know,” says Fortier. “Builders today tend to forget tradition and build houses in the US style where they need air conditioning and it costs them a lot of money for nothing because there are nice trade winds all the time.”

Cat Island
Using the local know-how and materials is a lesson taken to heart by another pioneer of sustainable tourism, Tony Armbrister. “One of my main philosophies when I first came down here was to use local labour and local stone to make the buildings,” says Armbrister, owner of Cat Island’s Fernandez Bay Village, which has sixteen cottages all built with locally quarried stone. “An undercurrent of everything we have tried to do here is to encourage the local economy. To continually put something back. We tell everyone on the island—‘If you have something, if you make something, we will buy it.’ I would rather spend my money here than send it to Nassau or the US.”

Since the first cottage was built on the secluded bay in 1973, Fernandez Bay Village has become an integral part of the local community, providing jobs for around 22 people and using local produce whenever possible. “We will buy anything the farmers produce. We get whatever is available and we don’t buy anything out of season so that whatever we have is the freshest. So in tomato season we have piles and piles of the best fresh tomatoes; in melon season you can’t move for melons.”

This policy of not buying produce out of season is an example of Armbrister’s commitment to sustainability and the local environment. “We have fought against fishermen taking lobster and grouper out of season,” he says, “but the most effective way to stop them is to refuse to buy it. If Fernandez Bay and the other resorts on Cat Island do not buy, then the market dries up and it reduces the take.”

The trained pilot and entrepreneur is also working with the Bahamas National Trust to establish an affiliated group to get substantial marine areas around the island designated as national parks and no fishing zones. “Obviously this is people’s livelihood we are talking about so we have to work closely with the local fishermen. We are hoping to employ marine park rangers who can prevent over-fishing and stop boats fishing out of season.” His efforts have already seen a significant reduction in the netting of bonefish and killing of turtles in Cat Island’s waters.

Pioneering such efforts in the tourism trade has not been easy. “There is a lot more I would like to do to reduce the impact of Fernandez Bay Village,” says Armbrister. “We are constantly working on ideas to make it more environmentally sound. We have a couple of pilot projects in mind using solar energy and we have already installed low-flow shower heads and energy-saving light bulbs. But there is little incentive from the government at this point. It is something we have to work together on.”

In line with Armbrister’s wishes, in October last year the government appointed its first Environment Minister with an eye to initiating more environmentally aware policies. “We all have a responsibility to the environment and the local community,” concludes Armbrister. “After all, that is why we are here.”

Star Island
For such efforts to become commonplace will require a significant change in the thinking of hotel operators and tourist service providers for the industry to remain sustainable into the future. One encouraging sign is that some newer projects in The Bahamas, such as a project on Star Island, are following the lead set by the likes of Armbrister and Fortier.

“This is a very exciting time in the field of green technology and sustainable tourism,” says David Sklar, the architect and chief executive officer of Star Island—a private island development near Harbour Island. “Resorts are harnessing natural energy sources, building with sustainable materials … serving locally grown organic foods and aiding their local communities. Star Island plans to become a showcase for the latest and most innovative technologies, materials and practices.”

The luxury resort, which is currently in the early stages of development, will employ a raft of alternative energy technologies, recycling methods and waste-cutting strategies. “We have a real opportunity to prove that uncompromising luxury and earth-friendly practices are entirely compatible,” promises Sklar—echoing the sentiment already in place in some of the Family Islands.

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