Air Date: Week of May 28, 1999
The turquoise waters, white sandy beaches and pristine coral reefs of Grand Cayman Island bring more than a million tourists each year to this island in the Caribbean. But, as Pippin Ross reports, the pressure to develop more resorts for tourists threatens the very natural resources which brought tourists in the first place.
CURWOOD: Each year, more than a million tourists visit Grand Cayman to vacation. The 22-mile-long island just south of Cuba has turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and some of the world's most pristine coral reefs. But like so many islands in the Caribbean, pressure to build more resorts and attract even more tourists is threatening the natural resources that bring tourists in the first place. Pippin Ross recently visited Grand Cayman Island and brought back this report.
ROSS: Seven-Mile Beach on the west side of Grand Cayman is where most tourists who come to the island spend their time. The alluring crescent is lined with dozens of resorts. Tourists swim in the pale blue water, sunbathe, and stroll along the soft white sand.
(Whistling, voices, announcements)
ROSS: About every 50 yards is a dive shop, where visitors can sign up for scuba lessons and diving excursions. Early on this morning, about 20 tourists gather around a flat-decked motorboat to travel out to sea and dive Grand Cayman's North Wall. A couple from New Jersey have been scuba diving elsewhere, but this, they say, is the best.
WOMAN: It's definitely amazing. It's very exciting, and it's a lot of fun.
MAN: It's 100 feet, so we're used to doing about 50, 60. So, we've got to get over the hump here, but we're looking forward to it.
ROSS: What's down there?
MAN: Wall, fish. Shark. Possible death. That's what makes it exciting.
ROSS: Most tourists who come to the arid and flat island are divers and snorkelers drawn by the underwater beauty of coral reefs that ring the island and drop deep into the sea, attracting an incredible array of marine life.
ROSS: The rest of Cayman's 1.2 million annual visitors arrive on massive cruise ships that drop anchor in the harbor of Georgetown, the island's congested capitol. For decades Grand Cayman has been renowned as a tax haven for the world's wealthy. But when King George III granted the island permanent tax exempt status 200 years ago, he had no idea of the conundrum he'd create. Without tax revenue, the island relies heavily on tourists. Although much of the profits end up in foreign bank accounts. Reliance on outside labor and tourists has brought rampant development, traffic, and overcrowding. Even a visitor such as cruise ship passenger Brian McGowan can see it's taking a toll on the island's natural beauty.
McGOWAN: One of the things that is noticeable, now, after coming from Cozumel, is the total difference between the development that's here and there, where it's still pretty primitive and untouched.
ROSS: Air, water, and noise pollution are the obvious symptoms of the island's growing popularity, but there are other consequences as well. Such as what happens when 5 different cruise ships a day drop anchor atop delicate coral reefs.
(Anchor being lowered)
AUSTIN: This is a large chunk of reef. You can hear it creaking, and then all of a sudden it's just beginning to break...
ROSS: Tim Austin is the acting director of Grand Cayman's Department of the Environment. He watches an underwater video of an ancient coral reef being pulverized by a cruise ship's 10-ton anchor.
AUSTIN: And we have for a long time been pressing for moorings, permanent moorings, so the ships wouldn't necessarily have to anchor.
ROSS: Alternatives to anchors are just one of dozens of environmental initiatives Austin and his crew of marine biologists are working on.
ROSS: Inside laboratories and offices, scientists are, among other things, working on a 3-year study of the health of the coral reefs, and programs to restore overfished sea turtle and the lobster and conk so much in demand by tourists. But most of what the department does is outdoors.
ROSS: Austin maneuvers his boat into a lush mangrove that has been put into preserve. But it's only safe for as long as its owner decides not to sell the land. Austin says development, cutting down mangrove and putting up houses and hotels, is the biggest environmental threat facing the island.
ROSS: Along 7-Mile Beach, bulldozers are clearing a lot for a new Ritz-Carlton. Although the hotel will sit on environmentally sensitive beachfront property, this project, like every other resort along the beach, hasn't had to meet any environmental standards. That means it will, at the very least, cause beach erosion and some water pollution. The Caymanian government has vowed that the Ritz will be the last unregulated development. The Minister of Environment declined to be interviewed for this story. The island's Director of Planning and Development John Corcoran, says the government is putting the final touches on a 10-year strategic plan to limit development and protect the environment. But, he adds, our priority is to hotels that bring both revenue and aesthetics to the island. That position does not sit well with many Caymanians. Lendo McGowan has fished Cayman waters all of his life. He says there aren't nearly the fish there used to be.
ROSS: While chopping off the heads of his daily catch, McGowan says islanders have seen enough change.
McGOWAN: We've gotten to the point now that there's going overboard with everything. So I can't tell you which way they're going to rebel, but I know one of these days they're going to rebel bad. There are going to be serious consequences in this seemingly little island here. If the government don't straighten up.
ROSS: Unlike McGowan, most lifelong residents are middle class and earn their living in the banking industry. So they can afford to be critical of tourism. To bring pressure, citizens, mostly expatriates, have begun to take advantage of the few restrictions that do exist to stop or impede individual developers. The National Trust, a nonprofit membership-driven organization, is busy buying up tracts of land to put into preserve and designating other sites as historic and therefore untouchable. The Trust is also trying to bring back the Island's giant blue iguanas. National Trust Environmental Director Fred Burton scratches the head of a 5-foot, sleepy-eyed iguana named Bernard.
BURTON: There's only about probably 150 of them left in the wild. And they're being slowly driven to extinction by habitat destruction, by dogs and cats, which eat them, and by roadkills and all of the plagues that civilization bring to wildlife.
ROSS: Burton is encouraged that the government is considering several proposals to control development, but he's worried restrictions won't go far enough.
BURTON: If we wait until the limitations of the island force development to stop, then it'll be an unpleasant stop. It'll be an abrupt stop. It'll be an economic crash. It'll be the classic situation, where the tourism industry collapses because the place isn't attractive any more. The financial woes that follow cause political unrest, and the political unrest causes the collapse of the financial industry. And the whole thing is just shot to hell, as they say.
ROSS: Burton points to the current unrest in nearby Jamaica as a case in point. His hope is that Grand Cayman can demonstrate to other Caribbean islands that there is a relationship between profit and preservation, instead of becoming an example of too little conservation, too late. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross.
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