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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 5

Tourism Development on Utila

Sea, Sun and Drugs: Factors that Attract Tourists to Utila

Emergence of the Present Tourism Industry

New Trends in Development

Development on the Utila Cays

Defining Utila’s Tourism Source Regions

Top of Page Tourism Development on Utila

The tourist development of the Bay Islands is a forgone conclusion. No area of such beauty and such accessibility can remain undiscovered and unexploited. To yield their full potential, however, careful planning is indicated…It would be most unfortunate if the beauty of the Bay Islands was not available to all visitors to—and residents of—Central America. Nature has not created comparable attractions along the Caribbean coasts of Guatemala, Nicaragua or Costa Rica. The Bay Islands are a truly regional resource. (Ritchie et al 1965)

Before beginning a discussion of the history of the tourism industry on Utila, perhaps a note on tourist types is appropriate. Paul Fussell (1980) distinguished the tourist from three other types of people who take trips.

His first classification is the explorer. Explorers seek the undiscovered and believe that no others have gone before. Christopher Columbus and his crew and the many other conquistadors who visited this part of the world during the colonial period are early examples.

Travelers, Fussell’s second type follow the explorers and attempt to learn about the newly discovered areas through study and experience. In the Bay Islands, people such as Mitchell-Hedges and his associates and William Duncan Strong, the first ethnologists and archeologists to visit the Bay Islands, are considered among this group. Travelers did not make it to the islands until early in the 20th century.

Fussell’s definition of the tourist differs from the others because they seek areas already discovered by businesses and publicized by the media. People who want nothing to do with the mass stereotypical tourist destinations and seek only the most remote of places that they perceive to be more authentic Fussell labels the antitourist. These people, he believes, imagine themselves as travelers, however, the days of the explorer and traveler are long past because few places on Earth have not been visited by humans.

Fussell’s typology lacks a category for the scoundrels, fugitives, and scallywags who visited the islands before they were developed by the modern Bay Islanders. Further, he does not suggest where academic researchers fit into this scheme. Still, utilizing his discussion, it is possible to determine when the first modern tourist reached Utila and that travelers came to the island well before tourism become a major economic component of the world market after World War II.

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). Travelers such as Mitchell-Hedges gave accounts that portrayed images of a rustic, savage place with extensive reefs that held ship wrecks.

The possibility of pirate treasures hidden in the reefs lured the first major wave of tourists to the islands in the late 1970s. However, Utila’s potential for tourism did not go unnoted by Rose in 1904, well before tourist began visiting the island. Ritchie, Davidson and Lord in the 1960s and 1970s, when an infant industry was beginning to develop on the islands, also noted the possibilities an economy based on tourism could bring to the islanders (Ritchie et al 1965; Davidson 1974; Lord 1975). Nevertheless, for Utila, it would be well into the 1980s before tourism became a significant component of their island economy.

The conclusion of World War II brought a world boom in tourism and travel world wide. The Bay Islands and much of the western Caribbean, however, did not participate in the tourism explosion. Inadequate transportation, infrastructure, and boarding facilities were among the primary reasons for this lack of participation. The region also had acquired a reputation as being politically unstable (Nance 1970; Davidson 1974; Stonich 2000).

In the late 1960s a diminutive modern tourism industry emerged in the islands as regular airline service from the mainland was initiated. In this same decade several popular periodicals suggested that the islands were perfect places for the adventuresome traveler who found sailing, diving and treasure hunting appropriate activities (Killbracken 1967; Jackson 1970). Also fundamental in development of the tourism industry on the Bay Islands were the Honduran legislative actions taken in the 1980s to help the existing economic crisis. Additionally, the political unrest during the 1970s was resolved and a perception of peace throughout Central America contributed to the growing industry (Stonich 2000).

Though a modern tourism industry emerged in the 1960s it grew fairly slowly until the 1990s (see Table 5.1) (Stonich 2000; Instituto Hondureño de Turismo 2001). Roatán had the largest number of hotels in 1960 (12), while Utila and Guanaja each had only one. By 1989 Roatán’s numbers had decreased by two leaving the island with only ten hotels while Guanaja’s numbers had increased to four and Utila’s to three. The inhibiting factors present during the 1960s, such as in adequate facilities and accessible transportation remained unresolved well into the 1980s.

  Roatan Guanaja Utila
Year Hotels Rooms Hotels Rooms Hotels Rooms
1960 - 1969 12 81 1 4 1 2
1970 - 1979 11   4 46 1 5
1980 - 1989 10 168 4 46 3 34
1990 - 2001 59 953 18 178 28 330

Table 5.1: Hotels on the Bay Islands from 1960-2001
Source: Nance 1970; Davidson 1974; Lord 1975; Stonich 2000; Instituto Hondureño de Turismo 2001

A ferry service between La Ceiba and the island settlements of Utila, Oak Ridge, and French Harbor had been established but the transportation infrastructure on the islands improved very little. For example, Utila had no paved roads until the late 1990s aside from a small portion of Main Street that was paved in the early 1970s.

In 1988 through international assistance, Roatán’s small airstrip outside Coxen Hole was enhanced to handle jet aircraft (ibid). In that same year, Honduras’s airline Tan Sahsa began offering regular airline services between the mainland and the island, from several Central American countries, and from Miami, New Orleans, and Houston (ibid). Service into the United States lasted only a few years because in 1994 the United States banned the airline because of safety violations (ibid).

Utila’s airport is the smallest of the three islands and is currently unpaved, therefore no international flights have flown into the island (see figure 5.1). As of 2001 only two airlines service Utila, Sosa and Atlantic. Isleña Airlines recently discontinued services because the dirt runway was damaging the airplanes. Currently Utila has five daily flights, two in the morning, one at midday, and two in the early evening before dark. There are no scheduled flights after dark on the island because the runway is not equipped with properly lighted.

Figure 5.1: Old Airport on Utila
Figure 5.1: Old Airport on Utila

In 1974 approximately 1,000 tourist visited the Bay Islands, however by 1988 this number had risen to approximately 15,000 (SECPLAN 1989). The 1990s has been the decade for the Bay Islands’ tourism industry. In 1997 roughly 93,000 tourists visited the islands (Stonich 2000). This number was nearly quadruple the islands population total in the 1988 census.

In the early 1990s approximately 11% of the islands’ total labor force was employed in service sector jobs (ibid). By the end of the decade nearly 80% of the islands’ population was directly or indirectly dependent on the tourism industry (ibid). Most islanders were employed as service personal with little or no training and those in management or executive positions were mostly foreign (ibid).

The number of tourist facilities from 1985 to 1996 also grew substantially from 17 to 80 for all the islands (Instituto de Turismo de Honduras 2000). Utila’s proportion of hotels increased from 18% to 30%; total number of rooms increased from 34 to 199 (Table 5.2). Of course, Roatán still attracts the greatest number of tourist. Roatán also has the greatest price range for hotels; 10$ to $1500 daily. Guanaja has the highest mean price for daily lodging $94.25, and as might be expected Utila is the least expensive ($18.04). Since 1996 Utila has experienced an even greater spurt of development and continues to grow today.

Table 5.2: Tourists arrivals for the Bay Islands, 1970-2000
Table 5.2: Tourists arrivals for the Bay Islands, 1970-2000
(SECPLAN 1998; Instituto Hondurano de Turismo 2000; Stonich 2000)

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Top of Page Sea, Sun and Drugs: Factors that Attract Tourists to Utila

Utila’s culture history prepared it well for a tourism industry. One of the most important cultural traits for the development of the tourism industry, which began during the remittance period, was the relaxing of laws and social norms for men returning from sea (Lord 1975). Because of this, an atmosphere of “heavy partying and drinking” became a common occurrence on the island (ibid:4).

These relaxed social laws have been important in drawing tourists to the island. Women are free to walk around in swimsuits and men in shorts without being harassed by locals as might occur on the mainland. Alcohol and drugs are easily accessible on the islands and local law enforcement officials rarely make arrests for public drunkenness or drug possession. When they do, however, if the suspect can pay their fine, they are released within 24 hours.

Utila has become so well known for its drug activity that an event was created to play off of this reputation. In August of 1998, Utilians hosted the first Sun Jam festival on Water Cay. In only four years the event has become the epitome of drinking, drugs, and partying on the island. People from all over the world visit Utila to take part in the festival. It has become so popular that the organizers feel having another in the spring could be financially beneficial for the island.

There are two main organizers (one local and one local foreign) although many others on the island participate. The organizers start receiving shipments of drugs weeks in advance as they prepare for the masses of tourists who are expected to participate (personal communications). These organizers also section off the small cay to local businesses who want to set up small booths to sell food and drinks (mostly alcoholic).

At the center of the cay is a large makeshift bar and D.J. booth where European “techno” and “trans” music can be heard playing well into the next day. Local boat owners ferry tourist to and from Water Cay for a small price (about 50 Lps or $3 US). They are usually packed well over their carrying capacity as was shown the year before when a boat turned over on its return trip. Advertising for the event occurs mainly by word of mouth between groups of tourists traveling through Central America although there is an Internet site set up especially for the occasion.

Sun Jam has become a cult-like event as many “Sun Jamers” return each year to take part. The festival is not solely made up of foreign tourists as many Hondurans also visited Utila, “to see if something like this really takes place in Honduras.” No matter how people came to know about the event, all informants had one thing in common, they wanted to take part in the drug activity.

 Because Sun Jam is held on Utila, and is organized by locals, it appeared to be a moderately controlled environment. For example, it was reported that organizers had “taken care” of the police well in advance so that none were seen on Water Cay during the festival. This sense of security may also play a part in the popularity of Sun Jam as many informants expressed their reservation about taking part in drug activities in other places in Central America. However, on the Friday before the festival, an American military helicopter landed on the island. It was never confirmed why it had come and no one ever saw military walking around the island, but many suspected a major international drug bust.

An attempt was made to determine the number of tourists on the island during this event. One local hotel and dive shop owner said that all rooms on the island were occupied so Many “Sun Jamers” where leaving for Water Cay the day before the event started to set up tents and hammocks. One estimate of the number of partiers was over 500. This number seems possible if all the hotel rooms were filled because at least 330 rooms are now available on the island and more than half of these are able to sleep more than one person. Additionally, a number of multiple occupant apartments are available. All included, the total occupant load of the island is well above 500.

The SunJam festival makes up a sizable portion of the summer tourism economy. There was no other time during the summer of 2001 that all the hotels were full and lines would form outside restaurants. Although it last only a weekend, the financial potentials for the local industry has become an important part of the summer tourism season.

The drinking and partying atmosphere is not the only draw for Utila. In fact before drugs were a major part of the Utilian allure, small groups of people were visiting the islands to explore, dive and fish the reefs. In the 1960s the islands’ reefs and the possibility of “sunken treasures” attracted groups of American and European tourists to the island (Nicolson 2001; Randel 2001 - In order to protect the identity and privacy of my informants I have replaced their names with pseudonyms.).

Long before the local diving industry was established, fully equipped groups would visit the island and pay locals to take them to the reefs and lead them on underwater expeditions (Cobb 2001). On occasion these early divers initiated destructive practices when they removed objects hidden in the reefs (Nicolson 2001; Randel 2001). One diver reportedly used dynamite to reach the Spanish treasures that had been encased in the reefs. However, the Bay Islander’s have also been accused of destroying the reefs.

Other tourists were more interested in fishing the still plentiful waters surrounding the island and discovering Utila’s “pristine” island environment. By 1980 Utila had entered into its present economic phase.
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Top of Page Emergence of the Present Tourism Industry

From about 1960 onward a small but relevant tourism industry was beginning to form on the island. As early as 1965, in the report by Ritchie and his associates, Utila was recognized for its inexpensive appeal. The group wrote,

“The initial development of Utila should attempt to maintain a balance between the bargain appeal (the present boarding house charges $3 dollars per day American plan) and accommodations of quality that can be promoted by U.S. travel agencies...Design should be of high standards and in keeping with the architecture of the town. The objective is first-class comfort and housekeeping, without luxuries (Ritchie et al 1965:73).”

These first tourists were made up of recreational sailors, fishermen, and SCUBA divers along with the occasional “hippie” (Nicolson 2001). In 1971, when Davidson carried out his survey of the Bay Islands tourism facilities, Utila had only one small hotel, the Jimenéz (Davidson 1974).

A few years later, when Lord conducted his research on Utila he noted the presence of three local bars, including the most famous and the only one still in operation: the Bucket of Blood Bar (Lord 1975). As shown in Figure 5.2, just a handful of facilities existed before 1980. However, when the Honduran Government realized the islands’ potential as a means to end the economic crisis of the 1980s, Utila, along with the other three islands, began to reap the economic benefits of new governmental legislation.

The periods of the most intensive growth can be linked to the establishment of these policies. The implications of these policies for landscape and cultural change have been important in this discussion. However, in this section, I will reconstruct the emergence of the industry on the island using dates acquired from locals and other documents from local tourism facilities.

Aside from Hotel Jimenéz, before 1980 Utila had one other family owned hotel, Hotel Trudy. A second hotel was begun sometime in the mid 1970s but was never finished. Its skeleton is visible on a ridge west of town (figure 5.2). Locals say that an American named Duncan began the hotel. However, he ran out of money and left the island, “never to be seen again” (Rafeal 2001). Now, the hill site is known by locals as Duncan Hill. As one of the few high outcrops of coral on the island the view is panoramic over the entire settlement of East Harbor. The hotel ruins are now home to ladino squatters.

In addition to the two boarding facilities, Utila had one travel agency, (Morgan’s Travel) (site unknown), two restaurants (site unknown), a general store (site unknown), three bars and an airstrip. As figure 5.2 shows, before 1980, tourism facilities on Utila were rare and the industry was still in its infancy. The situation changed during the 1980s.

Figure 5.2: Tourism facilities on Utila before 1980
Legend Hotels and * Restaurant
Figure 5.2: Tourism facilities on Utila before 1980
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

As SCUBA diving became more popular worldwide after the 1970s the flow of tourist increased to the island (Calhoun 1996; Martin 1997). The first organized dive schools were established during the 1980s and included, Cross Creek Dive Center, Utila Water Sports, and Utila Dive Center. Three new hotels were also built, Cross Creek Hotel, Hotel Celena, and Blueberry Hill, and the first small resort was built in East Harbor (Utila Lodge). However, Utila Lodge was not advertised as a resort until the mid 1990s.

Cross Creek Hotel began a trend that has been followed in recent years, that is, dive shops build their own hotels or establish contracts with existing hotels for rooms. This arrangement allows the dive schools to advertise packages that give their clients cheaper rates on rooms. These arrangements have caused conflicts among locally owned dive shops and foreign owned dive shops. Cross Creek, along with its dive shop and hotel, also constructed a restaurant to complete its tourism complex.

Other restaurants were also built during the 1980s namely Mermaid’s Corner, The Jade Seahorse, and Utila’s first mainland-owned business, Las Delicias. Additionally, a second travel agency was built, as well as a bank, Hondutel telecommunications office, and two supermarkets. As Figure 5.3 shows, the decade of the 1980s began the escalation of the modern industry, with diving being its primary attraction.

Utila is known worldwide for being one of the “cheapest” places in the world to dive and thus attracts a certain type of tourist. The establishment of the first dive centers and the understanding of the type of tourist the island was attracting created a more coherent industry. Local businesses focused their attention and efforts towards building on this attraction. As each new diving school was built a hotel soon followed.

With the exception of the three resorts, all of the other tourist related businesses stayed within the “unspoken” price parameters.

Figure 5.3: Tourism facilities on Utila, 1980-1990
Figure 5.3: Tourism facilities on Utila, 1980-1990
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

The 1990s brought the greatest changes to Utila’s tourism industry and by the summer of 2001 Utila had developed into a thriving diving-oriented tourist center (Figure 5.4 and 5.5). Today the island has 11 dive shops, reduced from a high of 14. Two dive shops, Sea Eye Dive Center and Reef Resort Dive Shop, closed shortly after opening because of internal competition. After the Reef Resort Dive Shop closed in 1997 the owners converted the building into the Reef Cinema, one of two places on the island where films can be viewed. Within an eight year period eight dive shops have opened and are flourishing on the island (figure 5.4)

Figure 5.4: Tourism Facilities on Utila. 1990- Present
Figure 5.4: Tourism Facilities on Utila. 1990- Present
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

Figure 5.5: Oyster Bay Lagoon with Hotels and Restaurant
Figure 5.5: Oyster Bay Lagoon with Hotels and * Restaurant
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

As the diving industry continued to grow, an accompanying increase in the number of hotels and other related tourist facilities appeared to accommodate visitors. By the summer of 2001 Utila had 28 fully operational hotels and an addition five hotels were under construction (figure 5.4 and 5.5). In addition, many islanders were renting extra rooms and empty houses to tourists who wanted to stay on the island for longer periods of time.

Some 19 new restaurants, bars, and cafés were also constructed between 1990 and 2001. These new facilities were built especially for the growing tourist industry. In addition to the new dive shops, hotels and restaurants that were established in the last 11 years some 23 other tourist related facilities have also been built. These businesses include three internet shops, two bicycle rental shops, several souvenir shops, several laundry services, several boutiques, two community health centers, several household good stores and two bottled water businesses.

The bottled water business beginnings are in direct correlation with the escalating numbers of tourist to the island. Before the 1990s Utilians used well water and cistern water for drinking and other related needs. Imported bottled water was available for consumption on the island, however, when large numbers of foreigners start visiting the island locals saw the potential for personal profit. Therefore the two businesses began operation.

Since 1970 nearly 49% of the tourist related facilities constructed, were built in the settlement of East Harbor on unoccupied land. While 51% of the facilities were placed in existing buildings or on land formally occupied. Of this 51%, 25% of the new facilities were housed in converted private dwellings. Although only 49% of the new buildings were built on unoccupied land the landscape and land-use patterns existent on Utila before tourism became an important economic factor were beginning to undergoing change.

Utila does not have the infrastructure that the other islands possess, such as 24-hour electricity or island-wide sewage disposal or plumbing. The island’s electricity comes from a diesel powered-generator. In 1965 the generator ran only during the early morning and early evening, less than nine hours a day. Many islanders remember this time and joked that if the generator came on during the night it meant someone had died (Cobb 2001; Brown 2001; Sampson 2001). A generator still produces the power on the island. It normally runs from six in the morning until midnight. Because of fuel shortages and frequent mechanical problems, neighborhood outages often occur. Such inconsistencies required that tourist facilities have their own generators to guarantee their services.
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Top of Page New Trends in Development

Previous observers have noted a general pattern to the location of tourist facilities and the degree to which they alter the landscape. Until recently most of the tourist facilities that have been built on Utila have been concentrated in the settlement of East Harbor. Thus the islands’ natural landscape, such as mangrove and tropical forests, had not been significantly altered.

However, the new trend to locate tourist facilities and residential areas away from the existing settlement of East Harbor has caused drastic changes to the natural landscape. These new developments have been constructed to cater to higher paying clientele and provide services beyond room and board. In the 1990s Utila acquired its first two resorts of this nature, the Laguna Beach Resort and the Reef Resort (figure 5.5). Additionally, by the end of the decade two residential development projects had been started that have significantly altered the natural landscape.

There are two areas on Utila in which these developers have located: on the eastern tip of the island where the fragile iron shore is located and along the southwestern shore facing the cays (figure 5.6 and 5.7). The development underway on the eastern tip of the island incorporates four different sites, including “Rocky Point Estates,” “Paradise Cove at Red Cliff,” an unnamed site, and “Aquarium” hotel and residential lots. However, for the purpose of this discussion, this area will be referred to as one site.

Both developments incorporate beach-front property in otherwise uninhabited parts of the island. It seems these developers bought large chunks of land for a relatively low price and then cleared the natural vegetation so that they could section the land off into smaller lots to sell to foreign tourists. I specify foreign tourists because, as many islanders explained to me, they can not afford to buy these lots from the developers. An estimated price of one such lot on the eastern tip was about $ 80,000 US dollars. These properties are being brokered through locally owned Alton’s Real Estate, and American-owned Utila Island Properties.

Figure 5.6: Development on the Eastern end of Utila
Figure 5.6: Development on the Eastern end of Utila
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

Figure 5.7: New Development on the Southwestern end of Utila
Figure 5.7: New Development on the Southwestern end of Utila
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

The development on the southwestern section of the island was purchased and developed first, and already has attracted foreign buyers. Advertised prices for lots, including small houses, begin at $100,000 US dollars. The second development, on the eastern tip, came with the construction of the new airport. When the large machines were brought to the island to be used in the airport’s construction, contractors soon realized the roads in the existing community were not strong enough or wide enough to allow passage. Therefore, a new road was cut beginning at the northern end of the old airport and wrapping around the northeastern coastline of the island (figure 5.6).

The real estate development began soon after this road was cut because, before, this area was virtually inaccessible except by boat. Essentially these areas will become foreign enclaves, well separated both geographically and economically, from the rest of the community on Utila. Additionally, if this development continues unchecked, a previously undeveloped area, close to mangrove habitant, tropical forests, and the delicate iron shore, may well suffer irreversible damage.

During the summer of 2001, many locals became aware of the possible negative implications of these new developments. However, they soon discovered they had little say in the way in which land was sold and developed on the island. Therefore, fearing what had happened on Roatán, many local business owners petitioned the local government officials to create a Chamber of Commerce. This surge of local community participation was fueled by one of the owners of the sites on the eastern tip of the island.

An American man had begun developing land in this area, however, his land did not have direct access to the water because of the presence of the iron shore. Additionally, he had already sold the land near the iron shore and begun cutting paths to the beach without going through the proper channels and without acquiring the proper permits. Soon after he was fined and had to replace the coral he removed but the damage had been done. Many locals hope that by creating the Chamber of Commerce, unchecked development such as this will not continue to occur. If this new trend continues unabated, previously undeveloped areas of the island, which are close to important natural resources such as mangrove stands and iron shore, may suffer irreversible environmental degradation.

The populated cays southwest of Utila are another matter.
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Top of Page Development on the Utila Cays

The two largest cays, Suc-Suc and Pigeon, have developed into a thriving fishing community separate from Utila (figure 5.8). During the first surveys of the area in the 1970s, no tourism facilities were documented. However, since 1980 three small hotels have been constructed: Hotel Kayla, Lone Star Hotel, and Vicky’s Rooms (found above Vicky’s General Store). There is also a small house for rent at the west end of Pigeon Cay.

Many Cayens (This term is meant to distinguish those people who live on the cays fro those who live on Utila. It is a term that is used by Cayens and Utilians.) expressed that they serve as a day excursion spot for the tourists who are staying on Utila. One business owner expressed that much of her daily business comes from the diving boats. She said, “We are close to one of their favorite dive spots, so the instructors bring their divers here for lunch instead of going all the way back to Utila.”

Rarely, however, are the Cayen hotels full. It was suggested that their tourism lags behind the main island because they lack sufficient resources. For example, no fresh water wells exist on the cays and the closest well on Utila is not potable. Rain cisterns are present on the cays, which provide minimal water for washing purposes, but bottled drinking water has to be imported from the mainland or from the main island. Allowing large numbers of tourist onto the cays, many Cayens feel, could be detrimental to their water supply. Garbage disposal, which is already a problem, would also be magnified, if tourism were to expand. Many Cayens expressed their contentment with their tourism status.

Figure 5.8: Pigeon and Suc-Suc Cay
Figure 5.8: Pigeon and Suc-Suc Cay

The ten smaller, uninhabited cays, however, have become popular tourist spots. These include Diamond Cay, Jack O’Neil’s Cay and Water Cay. Diamond Cay, just off the south eastern tip of Suc-Suc Cay, once housed the Utila Cay’s Dive Shop and Hotel. Tourists can now rent or buy the abandoned structures. Jack Neil’s Cay, Morgan Cay and Sandy Cay can also be rented (house included) for about 400 Lps a day ($27 US). Water Cay has become a favorite spot for tourists and islanders and has earned the reputation as being the “party island.” To access the cay a caretaker charges one lempira a day. Hammocks are also available to rent from the caretaker’s house for ten Lps.

Utila’s cays did not participate in the tourism boom found on the main island. Although, they do receive some business from the tourists that visit Utila, their economy has not become as dependent on this industry. Instead, this community continues to rely on the sea for its livelihood.
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Top of Page Defining Utila’s Tourism Source Regions

The diversity of tourists that visit Utila is increasing. While discussing tourism issues with a few locals during the summer of 2001 this subject was broached. From their statements it seemed reasonable to infer that it was no longer just North Americans who were making up Utila’s tourist population (or at least those staying in hotels).

This differs from documentation taken in the early years of the industry for the islands and especially the mainland (Rose 1904; Kaplan 1976). North Americans, more specifically those from the United States, have been documented as the major group visiting the North Coast and Bay Islands. However, today Europeans seem to make up the largest group on the island. Therefore, in trying to prove this shift I looked at several hotel records to try and determine places of origin for the island’s tourists.

By law each operating hotel on the island must keep a logbook that has all pertinent information about their visitors, such as, names, dates staying, place of passport issue, and where the tourist came from before arriving on Utila. I surveyed five of the local hotels ranging from the least expensive on the island to one of the higher priced hotels. It seemed important to do this to get an accurate view of the island’s situation.

However, hotel owners either do not keep or would not divulge records any earlier than 1999. For each hotel it was necessary to make tallies of each person according to country. From the information gathered five categories seemed appropriate to get an accurate representation. The term “other” was used to group all persons not from Europe, North American, Central American, or South American because there were so few people not from one of the other categories. However, the diversity of this group is definitely increasing. As shown in table 5.3, 5.4, and 5.5 the largest group visiting the island originated in Europe. North Americans were second. The stream of Central Americans is gradually increasing.

Table 5.3: Tourists Percentages for 1999 on Utila
Table 5.3: Tourists Percentages for 1999 on Utila

Table 5.4: Tourist Percentages for 2000 on Utila
Table 5.4: Tourist Percentages for 2000 on Utila

Table 5.5: Tourist Percentages for 2001 (Jan-Aug) on Utila
Table 5.5: Tourist Percentages for 2001 (Jan-Aug) on Utila

From the first travelers that ventured to the island, to the modern tourist, Utila’s distinctive culture and impressive natural environment has spurred an economically prosperous industry. As the islanders realized this potential prosperity, tourism has become a significant economic factor. The most rapid phase of development occurred during the period from 1990 to 2001. The industry continues to grow, as is exemplified by the five hotels under construction.

However, until recently, development has been confined to the existing settlement of East Harbor and minimal landscape and land-use change has taken place. At the end of the last decade, Utila entered into a new phase of development that mimics the practices in other popular tourism sites such as Cancun and Jamaica. These practices include the building of larger more lavish resorts and housing developments away from the existing local community. In conjunction with the islands prosperity and as this new phase begins, large numbers of migrants have been flocking to the island seeking steady work. These groups bring cultural attributes that are different from those already in existence. In the next chapter, the cultural consequences of Utila’s tourism will be addressed.
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