Monday, August 17, 2015.By Richard Harrison: Caye Caulker is a small island village twenty minutes by skiff south of San Pedro, Ambergris and 45 minutes by water taxi north east of Belize City. It is less than five minutes north of the pristine private island Caye Chapel, complete with golf course, where a Four Seasons Hotel is rumored to be in the works.
“The island is basically a sand bar over a limestone shelf. Underwater caves are found in the limestone (which has claimed the lives of several scuba divers exploring them). In front of the village, a shallow lagoon, between 6 inches (150 mm) and 14 feet (4.3 m) deep, meets the Belize Barrier Reef to the east. In front of the village, the reef is known as a dry reef with the reef exposed at the surface, while further north the reef is a deep reef and lies under 2 to 8 feet (0.61 to 2.44 m) of water. This area is popular with windsurfers.
A narrow waterway known as the Split divides the island in two. Some people state that the Split was created by Hurricane Hattie in 1961 which devastated Belize City, however that is a myth. Villagers who actually hand dredged it maintain that it is largely a man-made feature. The Village Council Chairman at the time, Ramon Reyes, recounts that he and others dredged the waterway by hand after Hurricane Hattie opened a passage a few inches deep.
Caye Caulker is thought to have been inhabited for hundreds of years, however the recent population levels didn’t start until the Caste War of Yucatan in 1847, when many mestizos of mixed Maya and Spanish descent fled the massacres taking place across the Yucatán.
The area of the village was granted to Luciano Reyes by Queen Victoria around 1870.” ~ Wikipedia
The area south of the Split is mostly where development have taken place, with the north side lands only recently distributed by government and development is slowly getting under way.
The main industry prior to tourism was fishing.
“Tourism first started on the island around 1964, with only a few visitors on weekends from the mainland Belleview Hotel, brought out by a local boat called ‘Sailfish’, built by a schoolteacher beside the then Teachers House. The early tourists were mostly people working with the Belize Government. Around 1969, Dr. Hildebrand of the University of Corpus Christi started visiting each winter with a Marine Biology Expedition of around 24 students. Backpackers also found their way to the island at this time, but transportation was only by fishing sailboats and there was no accommodation. The Alamina, Reyes and Marin families pioneered the tourism industry and the first scuba diving lessons and trips were started around the late 1960s.” ~ Wikipedia
The island can now be accessed by water taxi from Belize City, San Pedro, Corozal, Punta Gorda and Chetumal Mexico, Puerto Cortez Honduras and Puerto Barrios/Livingston Guatemala. It can also be reached by air flights from any part of Belize, Cancun Mexico, Roatan/San Pedro Sula Honduras and Flores/Petén Guatemala. Cruise ships are also now sending day shuttles to the island from their anchor point near Belize City.
Caye Caulker currently has around 720 hotel rooms and a range of restaurants and street-side food, refreshments and gifts vending. Accommodations of all kinds are available, from 4-star and middle-level hotels to guest houses for student education groups and backpackers. The range of visitors is very wide, originating from USA, Canada, France, UK. Germany, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Mexico and Central America, with an increasing number from Japan and South America, such that Caye Caulker now does not have much of the so-called “slow season” as experienced by other tourism destinations in Belize. The island turns over around $35 million per year in tourism and fisheries receipts.
There is also a range of marine and land-based tour services offered, both day and night. There is a lot of seafront white sandy beach areas and marina piers with public access for sunbathing, swimming, socializing or spending some quality time with friends or in solitude to meditate or read a book. Rentals for windsurfing, jet skiing, sailing, Para-sailing, knee boarding, banana rides and other water sports are available. Nightlife is few, but fun.
From the beach front in Caye Caulker one can see the white water surf of the deep sea crashing into the Great Belize Barrier Reef less than a mile away…..the 175-mile living reef system protects the entire coastline of blessed-Belize, and is the second-largest barrier reef in the world…. within five minutes by skiff there is Shark Ray Alley where one can swim with sharks, sting rays and sea turtles…..there is Coral Garden, a natural aquarium with a wide range of colorful marine plants, fishes and sea creatures, a snorkelers paradise with different eye-popping spectacles showing at day and another at night….about 20 minutes by skiff is Hol Chan marine reserve, where a snorkeler can get right-up-close to the reef to see and enjoy all its splendor…. at the back of the island is a Tarpon fish conservation at the mouth of a large underground cave….there is also a lagoon with ample supply of sardine bait for fishing. The net revenue from entrance fees to all these sites, after cost-of-operations have been covered, needs to be shared with the Caye Caulker village council for use in helping to finance the following quality-of-life and business/economic development recommendations.
The sargassum seaweed that is piling up on the beaches on the windward side of the island and creating an eye-soar should be turned into a small employment-generating business by the village council, by investing in rakes, shovels and wheel barrows. It should be raked in daily and sold at a cost-recovery price to owners of properties on the leeward lagoon-side of the island who are faced with a high cost of landfill for their eroding properties. Turn a “problem” into an “opportunity”.
The back or lagoon-side of the island is mostly mangrove swamp that is eroding slowly but surely over time. Garbage is accumulating and sewage is seeping. This side of the island can and should be as beautiful as the front beach areas, with the same kinds of development. A 200 ft malecon should be built with seawall and filled in with the sargassum and dredged seabed material, and covered with white beach sand. Appropriate engineering should be done with this investment to create a Sewage and Waste Water Treatment facility in the bed of this malecon, with a filter-system built-in, so as to protect the island fresh water supply and stop it from obtaining the foul smell in the ground-water that is already starting to appear. This investment will pay for itself over time, by allowing the properties on this side of the island to be invested for higher value and quality, creating more and better jobs and revenues for the central and local governments. This can be a phased project planned for completion over a 5-year period.
Caye Caulker should observe the law that provides for 66 feet of waterfront to be preserved for the public property with public access and right-of-way. This is a hall-mark of a civilized society that adds value to quality of life of every citizen and visitor, and should be one of the basic tenet of the sustainable development of Belize as a whole. The central and local governments need to enforce the laws of Belize without fear or favor, while making provisions of investments in marinas, piers and other infrastructure that make business and services possible, without compromising the daily life and rights of every citizen and visitor.
The roadways must always be maintained in the natural white sand that is characteristic of the island, scraped regularly to allow for smooth flow of golf carts and bicycles. No more large vehicles should be allowed on the island. Only when one is scrapped and taken off the island should another be allowed on. All the roadways, water front and public properties should be cleaned regularly of garbage, which should be properly disposed of. A much better job needs to be done of this than is currently the case. Caye Caulker should be pristine and natural.
The Caye Caulker Mini Reserve should be made into an official “protected area” and placed under co-management by a local conservation group, and supported with funds from the Protected Areas Conservation Trust , among others, for its development. This reserve has a lot of the natural vegetation and fruits of the island that can and should be conserved and propagated to populate the island with more fruit trees, flowers and shrubs that are naturally occurring on the island. Once cleaned up and developed a little more, tourists can be charged a small fee for entering, with proper security in place to ensure safety of visitors.
The village council needs to plan a full calendar of cultural and sporting events all year round, so that locals and visitors can be entertained in a clean environment. These events should be free of alcohol consumption and with appropriate security in place, sponsored in part by the many businesses that are operating on the island along with the village council, with a Belize Tourism Board/National Institute for Culture and History counterpart annual budget. Alcohol should be consumed ONLY in those places that are licensed to sell alcohol for on-site consumption.
More and better banking services should be attracted to the island, so that investment interests are appropriately attended to, and so that locals and tourists can have ready, convenient and immediate access to banking services and cash, especially over the weekends when the number of visitors peak. Banks should be encouraged to consider operating from Wednesday to Sunday, instead of from Monday to Friday.
There needs to be more and better swimming areas. While the Split area caters to crowd-seeking visitors, many visitors seek out less crowded areas. A requirement of permits to build marinas and piers on the beach front should be that the permit holder has to clean the sea grass from a small area for swimming, and build appropriate steps that are safe for swimmers to get into and out of the swimming area from the marina/pier.
The tourism business should be appropriately linked to the traditional fishing history and economy of the island, so that the value of both is enhanced. Tours can be designed and personalized/taylored to allow the tourists into the life of the fishers and their families, and vice-versa. Already the island fishers supply most of the seafood being consumed by the restaurants, which is an important part of the integrated economy. Optimizing the integration of all the citizens and visitors of Caye Caulker into the local economy, with full rights and responsibilities, will bring sustainable prosperity and balanced development with a high quality-of-life for locals and visitors to enjoy many decades into the future.
Safety and security of residents and visitors of the island should be a high priority. Preventive policing should be the hallmark of the safety and security strategy. Unemployed loiterers need to be appropriately documented by the police. Trouble makers known to the police should be continuously monitored and kept in check, and quarantined from popular centers on the island if and when necessary.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Belize Media Group.
This article was written by Richard Harrison, Belizean investor in production and services businesses in Belize. He holds a Masters in Business Administration degree from Lancaster University.
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