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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
Entire Paper - original format (approx 5:30 mins download @ 56 kps)
This thesis addresses the recent development of tourism on Utila, the westernmost island of the Bay Islands of Caribbean, Honduras. Especially during the 1990s, international tourists, mostly Europeans and North Americans, were attracted to the island because it was a relatively inexpensive place to dive on a beautiful fringing reef and to enjoy other benefits of a tropical beach community. Larger nearby islands, Roatán and Guanaja, had developed something of a tourism industry earlier.
A review of the economic and culture history of Utila reveals that modern islanders -- English-speaking Anglo and Afro-Caribbeans originally from the Cayman Islands were pre-adapted for international tourism. Previously, they had interacted with the international community through the fruit trade and merchant sailing. Returning islanders enjoyed a "laid back" lifestyle which was also appealing to tourists.
Because Utila has been a relatively cheap spot for tourists, it first attracted a “backpacker” type and when Europeans seeking cheap diving and drugs discovered the island, its reputation as a preferred destination attracted this lower level of the tourist types. As the tourism industry matured, interest in up-scale faculties has increased and a few small resorts have been constructed. At the moment, construction of an international airport, access roads to resort areas, and other large scale alterations of the landscape are locally severe and might be expected to seriously affect the island’s environmental stability. Another source of significant environmental and culture change are the Spanish-speaking Hondurans from the mainland, who have been attracted to Utila by the island's reputation as a place of developing tourism and economic prosperity.
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Since World War II, tourism has blossomed as a major economic component of the world market. Undoubtedly connected to globalism, this institution has become one of the largest industries in the world (Chambers 1997). From major cities to remote locales, the increasing dependence on tourism as an economic supplementary and in some cases economic mainstay is astounding. Traditional forms of economic activity are increasingly abandoned for the more informal tourist related work sphere. However, transformations occurring as a result of dependence on tourism are not solely economic. Tourism can also bring about cultural, social, and political changes significantly affecting a region’s ethnic and historical identity and geography.
Much of Central America did not participate in the initial tourist boom that occurred after World War II (Davidson 1974). It was not until the 1960s that tourism became a significant catalyst for change in this region. Honduran tourism was no exception. In fact Honduras had been largely bypassed because of infrastructural inequities, geographically restricting tourism flow to the western one-third of the country, leaving a significant portion of highly marketable tourist area untouched. However, in the 1960s, many of the Central American governments saw the potential tourism could have in their economic futures. For each Central American country, specific geographic regions with their respective cities were designated as having qualities appealing for international tourism. Among these designated regions, Honduras’s Bay Islands were seen as a large asset to the country’s international tourist market (Figure 1.1). Utila, the smallest of the three major islands is the focus of this research.
Figure 1.1: The Bay Islands’ location in Central America
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.
The Bay Islands remained relatively remote until well into the twentieth century. Although they were accessible to wealthy explorers, scholars and the occasional fugitive, for the modern tourist, getting to the islands was difficult because the only transportation from the mainland was by small dories and fishing boats (Keenagh 1937). Though a modern tourism industry emerged in the 1960s it grew slowly until the 1990s. Documentation of this development by academics has primarily focused on the environmental impacts that the industry has had and potentially could have on the islands (Nance 1970; Vega et al 1993; Stonich 1998; Parker 2000; Harborne 2000). More specifically this attention has focused on Roatán because development has been concentrated there (Nance 1970; Vega et al 1993; Stonich 1998; Stonich 2000).
The physical geography of Utila and the Bay Islands is perhaps one of the most valuable features for the development of its tourism industry. The tropical environment, including the Caribbean Sea, provide important resources for the type of tourism that is popular today.
The Bay Islands, including Utila, have a distinctive and diverse cultural heritage. The mélange of ethnicities stemming from its settlement history has created the diverse population seen today. This cultural diversity has been important in the island’s tourism industry. Traditionally Bay Islanders have been culturally and economically oriented to the sea. Livelihoods depended on ship building, fishing and more recently merchant sailing. Documenting the shift from a formal fishing economy to a tourism economy on Utila will also be a major focus.
Being the smallest of the three major Bay Islands, Utila has historically drawn a different type of tourist. Those not interested in big resorts and lavish facilities, looking for a fairly “cheap” way to see Central America and the Caribbean, find their way to this island. It would seem that this type of tourist has determined the character of tourism facilities on Utila. In addition to the international “backpacker” phenomena associated with tourism on Utila, the component of mainland Hondurans is growing.
During the summer of 1999, as an undergraduate student, I visited Utila for the first time and first contemplated this project. It became apparent that tourism was an overwhelmingly important aspect of life and local livelihood on the island. In the following chapters I hope to explain how Utila was before tourism became important and to illustrate how this industry has grown and the effects it is having on the island and its population.
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