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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 6

The "Backpacker" phenomenon and The "Spaniard"

The “Backpacker”

The “Spaniard”

Top of Page The “Backpacker” Phenomenon and the “Spaniard”

As the previous chapter has shown tourism has grown substantially in a relatively short period on Utila. Although tourists have visited the island for nearly a century, only since 1990 has consistent, rapid development taken place. 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).

This chapter explores the human consequences of the expanding tourism industry on the diverse cultural heritage of Utila. Two specific tourists groups, the “backpacker” and “the Spaniard,” will be discussed. Particular questions will be addressed concerning the origin of these groups, their reasons for choosing Utila, and how they have or have not affected the local economy.

Nearly 30 years ago in the conclusion of his historical geography of the Bay Islands, Davidson questioned whether the Bay Islands British West Indian culture, having emerged from years of Anglo-Hispanic conflict, could survive the new migrations of the ladinos from mainland Honduras and more North-American visitors (Davidson 1974).

Today these two groups come to the island for very different reasons and subsequently have different impacts. As tourism has become more pronounced on Utila, the island is also grappling with another group-the “backpacker” or “ticks” as the islanders like to call them (McNab 2001; Pederson 2001; Cooper 2001; Ramon 2001). Similar groups have been documented in fishing-based villages elsewhere in South America (Kottak 1998).
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Top of Page The “Backpacker”

Utila was predestined to attract a certain type of tourist, one not looking for expensive resorts, rather, one looking for a fairly cheap place to dive and experience Central America and the western Caribbean. This type of tourist I have dubbed the “Backpacker.” This term has been used to describe young European tourists but, in this work, it will be extended to all cultural groups that travel in this fashion.

Before the development of the 1990s, Utilians were slow to construct adequate housing and other tourist related facilities. Therefore, when groups of young, budget tourists came to the island they camped on the beaches. To further reduce their costs backpackers often bought only “coconut bread and beer” (Randel 2001). Tourism in this form kept interactions with local populations to a minimum and only slight contributions were made to the local economy (Nicolson 2001; Randel 2001; Cobb 2001).

Activities of this nature were documented by many locals during the early 1990s when adequate facilities had been constructed (Curtis 2001; Nicolson 2001, Randel 2001). It was apparent that the backpackers’ incentives had little to do with the lack of facilities on the island. Rather, much like Kottak (1998) noted in Brazil, backpackers activities stemmed from an economic necessity and longing for social interactions.

Although Kottak called the group he observed “hippies,” they essentially began their travels for the same reasons and had similar effects on the local population in Arembepe, Brazil. For the tourists that I have distinguished as the backpacker class, many of them are young and traveling on small budgets. As they travel, they meet other backpackers and form small groups. Through these groups and through other backpacker groups, they learn of economic and social havens. These havens establish reputations within the backpacker society because of their flexible law enforcement. The groups are able to find short-term work without acquiring expensive permits. However, as might be expected, animosity often arises between the backpackers and locals who might be competing for the same jobs. Utila has established this reputation.

The relationship between the islanders and the backpackers began to deteriorate in the early 1990s when it became clear that the visitors had little intention of changing their behavior. Many local businessmen resented these tourists because while visiting they made only minimal contributions to the newly established economy (Cobb 2001; Nicolson 2001; Randel 2001). Thus, many of the island’s businessmen petitioned the alcalde (mayor) to make beach camping illegal (Cobb 2001; Nicolson 2001; Randel 2001). The backpackers, much like Kottak’s hippies, first moved farther away from the local settlement so that they could continue staying on the island (Kottak 1999; Nicolson 2001). However, pressure from locals enforced the law and by 1999, backpacker camps had been eradicated.

As greater numbers of tourists visited Utila, a related increase in job opportunities and income levels followed. Jobs such as diving instructors and bartenders were in high demand. Diving is one of the Utila’s most important tourist attractions. The island is known for being the cheapest place in the Caribbean to earn SCUBA-diving certification.

During the summer of 2001 eleven diving establishments were in operation. Of these over half are owned and managed by foreigners. In most cases these owners and managers were not backpackers. They decided on Utila because of its reputation in diving circles and its beauty. However, nearly all of the support staff are backpackers who came to the island with little intention of staying. The steady work in a beautiful, cheap place persuaded many of these backpackers to make Utila their home, at least temporarily. Most stay no longer than six months. Except for three Bay Island instructors, the rest are non-Honduran (Table 6.1).

Of the backpackers interviewed many gave the same general story about how they had come to Utila and why they stayed. For most of them, they had heard about the island on the mainland of Central America and decided to “check it out.” Realizing the possibilities Utila offered for employment and general relaxation they decided to become certified divers. Most of these backpackers were not divers before they came to the island. To pay for this certification many of them worked either for the dive shops or in local bars. After becoming certified they would stay for a short while until they saved enough money to continue their travels. From my research I believe this has become a pattern for the many of the backpackers that visit Utila.

  Honduras United States Europe Other
Dive Shop        
Alton's Dive Shop 2 0 2 1
Utila Dive Center 0 0 4 2
Under Water Vision 0 1 2 2
Utila Watersports 0 0 1 2
Cross Creek 0 0 2 2
Captain Morgan's Dive Center 0 0 2 1
Parrot's Dive Center 1 1 1 0
Bay Islands College of Diving 2 1 0 0
Paradise Divers 1 0 0 2
Gunter's Ecomarine 0 0 3 3
Totals 6 3 17 15

Table 6.1: Countries of Origin of Utila’s Dive Instructors

Over the last five years many local attitudes have slowly changed and the backpackers have become “just another source of income and labor” (Cooper 2001a).

This is illustrated in a conversation with one such businessman:

F: So what do you think about all these foreigners on Utila now?
B: Me, man, I have no problem with the foreign guys being here. Now some do. Like those old men down there (points down the street where a group of older island men have gathered). I bet if you went down there and asked them that question they would tell you a different answer. But not me, man. Just as long as they don’t take away from my business and keep giving me business I don’t care how long they stay….Man, the jobs that the tourists take are the ones that the locals don’t want or can’t do anyway, man.

F: Even if they don’t have their papers
B: Well, man, you know most of them don’t, and well, man, I don’t care about that either. Some do though. Just the other day some local, and I won’t name names, went and complained to the police that there were lots of illegals working here. So the mayor had to crack down, but give it a couple of weeks and it will be right back to the way it was before. That kind of thing happens all the time, man, when one guy gets jealous of another guy making more money or something and then they go and tell but it doesn’t last for long. Really it only hurts them because they’re the ones hiring the foreign guys. Not me, man, I have no need for them.

A minority of islanders, however, still hold bitter feelings. Although “ticks” are contributing to the economy in general, by renting rooms and houses and buying food and other locally produced goods and services, some feel these backpackers are taking jobs from locals. But as shown in the above conversation, most of the jobs the backpackers take are jobs that locals, “don’t want or can’t do.” It must be stressed that those who dislike the backpackers are those who benefit the least from them living on Utila.

Additionally, some also feel that as tourism has become the predominant industry and more foreigners are living on the island for extended periods of time, crime rates, drug use, and general disorderly conduct have increased. Proof of these accusations was never provided, nor observed. From time to time, when competition and jealousy reach a breaking point, the local government is called in to control the illegal workers. This enforcement last only a short time before backpackers are working again.
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Top of Page The “Spaniard”

The Bay Islanders have always harbored bitter feelings towards the mainland “Spanish” populations. As documented by Davidson (1974) three decades ago, these feelings stem from the many feuds between the English and Spanish throughout the settlement history of the islands, as well as the many cultural differences, and the general lack of communication between the Bay Islanders and the Hondurans. As I spent time with many older Utilians it became clear that the resentment lingers as they told me stories about when they were (Bonds 2001; Cobb 2001; Curtis 2001; Brown 2001). Their stories were riddled with profanities and harsh generalizations, as my informants described experiences with the mainland Hondurans.

In each case, the Utilians described episodes of harassment and ridicule at the hands of the mainlanders. Many of them said they would be called, “uneducated, uncultured, thieves” by the Hondurans (Cobb 2001; Smith 2001). Perhaps it is not surprising to see similar attitudes expressed about the ladinos who are no living on the island. A reversal of harassment and ridicule has now surfaced against the ladinos who have recently made Utila their home.

The first wave of Honduran migrants came to the islands in the 1960s (Davidson 1974). This group however, preceded the economic boom associated with the tourism industry that has been blamed for the recent influx (Jacobson 1992; Stonich 2000). Davidson (1974) concluded that the initial intrusion was fueled by the favorable economic conditions on the islands associated with shipping and merchant marine industries at the time. Ladinos would come to the islands and start businesses selling Honduran made goods as well as work in the other industries on the islands.

In 1968, Guanaja seemed to be the island that was drawing the largest portion of ladinos. This cultural group made up approximately eight percent of the island’s total (Davidson 1974). Surprisingly, Roatán’s ladino population made up only three percent of its much larger total. Utila, although involved in the merchant sailing business, probably was not producing as much income because the islanders had not developed a large shipbuilding industry like the other islands and therefore, in 1968, only .8% of Utila’s population was ladino (Davidson 1974).

As the tourism industry began to take hold on the island, the trickle of ladinos escalated to a steady pour. The first ladino owned businesses on the island, namely Comedor Dilicia, Mario’s Place, Captain Jack’s, Commerca Mantoya, Delco Bike Hire, Raimundo and the two banks opened during the 1990s. Previously, the only businesses on Utila that were run by ladinos were those whose spouses were Bay Islanders. Lord’s 1975 work, as noted in Chapter 3, put Utila’s ladinos at the bottom of the social ladder.

During my surveys of 2001, businesses owned by Bay Islander and ladino couples were considered Bay Island establishments. These businesses included, The Sea Breaker, Covemen, and Samantha’s 7-11. Nothing in their facades indicated they were owned by ladinos. In 1999, the first street venders pervasive elsewhere in Latin America, appeared on Utila. “Baliada Ladies” selected the cross-roads of Main Street and Main Line Road (figure 6.1), where the municipal dock and municipal buildings are located, as their location. These ladies have been noted in many travel guides published around this same time (Humphrey 2000; Keller et al 2001). The “Baliada Ladies” only sold food and had not expanded into the market style shops located on the mainland (figure 6.1).

During the summer of 2001, however, a Latin America market structure appeared on Utila. As shown in figure 6.2, items ranging from shoes to hammocks, are sold from stalls that are essentially similar to those on the mainland.

Figure 6.1: Baliada Ladies found at the Municipal Dock               Figure 6.2: Ladino Street Vender on Utila
Figure 6.1: Baliada Ladies found at the Municipal Dock                          Figure 6.2: Ladino Street Vender on Utila     

Many local Utilians give two reasons for the recent influx of ladinos, the tourism industry and the alcalde. Much like the perceived economic opportunities Davidson noted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the tourism industry on Utila has given the island a reputation with many mainlanders as a place to improve their standard of living.

Although, very few ladinos work directly in the tourism industry a few have employment in hotels as maids, on construction crews building houses and roads, and as trash collectors. They are heavily involved in the construction of the new airport, perhaps because that deal was negotiated on the mainland. Stonich noted this same phenomenon on Roatán (Stonich 2000).

Most ladinos cannot take part fully in the tourism industry because they do not have the extra income or personal contacts it takes to start businesses on the island. Subsequently, the jobs they do take, when they are available, have increased negative local attitudes towards them. Many islanders feel that since the ladinos have come to the island wages have been inflated because this group will work for much less than local residents.

Additionally, there seems to be a local attitude concerning hunting and collecting fruits from the bush that most islanders seem to follow like an unspoken law. Hunting for one’s family is acceptable as well as collecting only enough fruits that can be carried out of the bush by hand. However, many ladinos have been caught hunting iguanas, turtles, and other local wildlife, which they then take to the markets on the mainland to sell. Many islanders also attest to seeing ladino families coming out of the bush with bags full of fruits and plants. The market in the adjacent coastal city of La Ceiba does have signs that advertise iguana and turtle eggs for sale. Whether ladino gathering on Utila is the source of La Ceiba’s sales is unknown, but these rumors are adding to the already strained relationship between islanders and ladinos.

Beginning in 1997, when the present mayor came into power, he, in conjunction with the government of Honduras, began a project to offer poor landless Hondurans from the mainland affordable land and housing. Utila, and the other Bay Islands, offer an outlet to establish such a project because of the perceived availability of work and other monetary prospects. Those mainlanders, who had already come to Utila, suggested that they knew the islanders were wealthier than they, and believed the prospects for work would be better on the islands because of the tourism industry.

What they did not foresee was the higher cost of living on the islands and the irregularity of work because of the seasonal aspect of tourism (Stonich 2000). Nevertheless, in 1997, an area located in the interior mangrove swamp on the eastern end of the island off Cola Mico Road behind the Bucket of Blood Bar, was cleared, separated into lots and sold at “very low prices” to mainlanders (actual prices were never discussed during my research) (Figure 6.3a and b).

Figure 6.3a: Crude Lot Separation in Camponado Neighborhood  Figure 6.3b: Crude Lot Separation in Camponado Neighborhood
Figure 6.3a and b: Crude Lot Separation in Camponado Neighborhood

Camponado, the islanders’ name for this new barrio, by the summer of 2001, had become a well populated area. In the preliminary 2000 census figures, the neighborhood contained 68 houses. Two distinct areas exist in Camponado. The older one begins behind the Bucket of Blood Bar. This area has concrete sidewalks and standard Bay Island’s houses and English is still spoken. This section extends approximately 30 yards from the road and does not enter the swamp (figure 6.4). However, where the swamp water begins, concrete is replaced by wood planks and English is replaced by Spanish. This is the younger part of the neighborhood, settled by mainlanders in 1997.

Land building on Utila has been a process carried out by islanders for generations. Because nearly two-thirds of the island is mangrove swamp, drying land or constructing artificial land is a common practice among islanders. New land is made from a variety of materials such as trash, fossilized coral, sand and concrete. In Camponado, land building is being carried out in a furious effort so that construction of more permanent houses can take place (figure 6.5). However, some houses have been built in areas still under water (figure 6.6). Without rules for sewage disposal, raw human refuse is deposited directly into the water. Trash and other materials are also thrown into the swamp reducing the environmental quality in this barrio.

This type of environment is a breeding ground for many diseases such as cholera, malaria, dysentery, hepatitis and dengue fever (Stonich 2000). If regulations are not set for the continued growth of this neighborhood, an outbreak of disease will most likely occur.

Figure 6.4: Location of Camponado on Utila
Figure 6.4: Location of Camponado on Utila
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

Figure 6.5: Land Building in Camponado  Figure 6.6: Ladino House in Camponado
Figure 6.5: Land Building in Camponado                       Figure 6.6: Ladino House in Camponado

This barrio has become a source of contention for most local Utilians. Stonich documented such an area on Roatán, and described much the same attitudes towards the “ghetto” and its inhabitants (Stonich 2000). Not only has Utila’s natural environment been adversely altered, the number of ladinos has grown significantly on the island since this barrio has been open. Many Utilians expressed their belief that increases in crime and drug activity have come with the increases of ladinos. As one islander said, “Their hands is full of glue, anything they touch they take.” (Smith 2001).

Many young Utilians voiced concerns about the presence of mainland gang activity on the island. Mainland gang insignia, representative of the Diez y Ocho’s and the Salva Truchnas are now appearing on Utila (Figure 6.7) (Carter 2001). If gang members are on the island is not known for certain and some suspect the tags were copied by local children (Carter 2001). Unlike the attitudes Utilians have towards the involvement of the backpackers in the tourism industry, ladinos are seen as bad for the economic livelihoods of the locals.

Figure 6.7: Mainland Honduran Gang Tags found on Utila
Figure 6.7: Mainland Honduran Gang Tags found on Utila

A local man said:

“Man, those Spaniards need to go! They come here and don’t work and they just steal from us. They rape tourists and then give our island a bad name….the ones that do come to our island and work, take our jobs because they will work for less than we will. The foreigners that hire them don’t know that they do bad work and will end up stealing from them.” (Bonds 2001)

In 2001, many ladinos were seen working on construction crews, building houses and roads. Others were working to clear and clean the new foreign owned land developments on the island. Primarily, Spaniards are working on the new airport, which is being built on the eastern side of the island. Still, many ladinos are without work and until local attitudes change, finding will continue to be difficult. However, they continue to come to the island under the pretext that the perceived tourism industry boom will provide opportunities for them. The ladinos have and will continue to have an affect on the island both culturally and environmentally and the Anglo-Hispanic conflict Davidson noted nearly 30 years ago is still very much a part of Utilian life.

Utila, like many other small island tourism destinations, is beginning to experience new cultural flows that follow its growing industry. Although there was resentment in the beginning, locals are slowly tolerating these groups. The backpackers today seem to be the most accepted group. This acceptance is not unanimous but as long as the “ticks” do not interfere with local business, they are allowed to stay.

However, the new mainland families moving to the island are still under constant scrutiny Although, today intermarriages between Utilians and ladinos are common place, those families that have come to settle on the island still hold the lowest place in the social hierarchy. They have become the local scapegoat for many of the problems that have occurred since tourism became the predominate economic institution on the island.
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