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Australian Financial Review

Unspoiled Vieques Contemplates Its Future

By Matthew Yeomans

October 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004 John Fairfax Holdings Limited. All rights reserved.

The US Navy has moved out, but this little Caribbean island now faces difficult decisions, writes Matthew Yeomans.

High up on a tropical-forested peak on the western end of Vieques, British developer Stuart Hankin admires the view from the swimming pool at Lionheart, his new luxury villa. Directly below lies Esperanza, the island's second largest town, and beyond that the southern coast proceeds in a chain of tranquil half-moon bays and coves.

Lionheart opened for business recently and Hankin rents accommodation for up to $US10,000 a week ($13,950).

"There are no turnkey vacation houses left on the island," he says.

Now that the United States Navy has finally abandoned its contentious live-fire training base on this island off Puerto Rico, Vieques has become one of the Caribbean's hottest destinations, and the place is alive with a giddy mix of both optimism and trepidation. On the one hand, it seems set for a spectacular rebirth. But on the other, there's the worry that one behemoth might soon be replaced by another: mass-market tourism. And while residents are aware that more visitors, and new developments like Hankin's, could radically improve Vieques's fortunes, they wonder who will ultimately benefit, and fear that change might spoil the island's friendly, low-key atmosphere.

Very few people mourned the departure of the Navy in May 2003. For almost 60 years it had controlled about two-thirds of the island. Although civilians were allowed onto beaches not used for military exercises, they were forced to live on a small strip of land running down the middle of the island.

After a local security guard on the base was killed by a bomb dropped in a training mission in 1999, a series of vehement protests on Vieques and in cities such as New York ensured that the island achieved notoriety for bombing runs and mass arrests. So the owners of local tourist businesses nearly all mainland American or European expats were just as relieved as native-born Viequenses when the Navy pulled out.

The benefits were immediate. For the first time in memory, the island enjoyed a summer tourist season. The vacation real estate market has jumped, with agents estimating prices have risen more than 25 per cent, driven by regular visitors seeking a piece of paradise and by speculators looking for a quick profit. "Vieques is the last undiscovered spot under the US flag in the Caribbean," says Hankin.

While property hunters descend on the island, the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, the group that led the protests against the Navy, is grappling with the repercussions. If the experience of neighbouring Saint Thomas is anything to go by, it's not the changing real estate market Vieques needs to worry about it's the emergence of the kind of mega-resorts that have given Saint Thomas the reputation of being the Caribbean's ugly American. And that's why the Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort & Spa has come under so much scrutiny. While it is far from a towering eyesore, some in the community argue that it represents exactly what Vieques doesn't need: a large resort managed by outsiders.

Ben Tutt, Martineau Bay's Colorado-born general manager, points out that more than 80 per cent of his employees are island natives. Equally important, the resort has initiated a program to teach employees the hotel business in an effort to redress their lack of experience. Although there is no evidence that any major new developments are planned, gossip shows how aware locals are that Vieques is caught up in something that could be beyond their control.

And so it's ironic that the one thing Viequenses still resent most could prove to be their salvation in the fight against overdevelopment.

After the Navy's exit, most of its land was passed to the US Fish & Wildlife Service to be turned into a nature reserve. As long as Fish & Wildlife controls the land, no one can build on it and developers are restricted to the strip of the island that Viequenses live on, which lacks access to prime beachfront.

Which is why keeping the former Navy lands in limbo may not be such a bad thing. The local community has drafted a plan for sustainable development which envisions low-impact ecotourism and the return of land to farmers and small businesses. Yet fostering this type of development will take long-term government support and protection, which could someday collapse in the face of developers' lobbying efforts and lucrative bids.

"This is my island," says Osvaldo Gonzalez, the owner of Vieques Air Link, one of the largest locally owned companies. "If I go fishing, I shouldn't have to leave at 6pm just because Fish & Wildlife says I have to."

The people of Vieques, it seems, are still a long way from controlling their own paradise, but for the moment, that's better than having a paradise lost.

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