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Vieques Master Plan Recommends Ecotourism

Plan rejects large-scale tourist projects that alter environment


January 20, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Vieques residents hailed the recently released Master Plan for Sustainable Development of Vieques & Culebra as a faithful reflection of their desire to see low-impact development on the islands.

"The plan contains what we as a people want for Vieques," said Ismael Guadelupe, of the Citizens for the Rescue & Development of Vieques.

The plan recommends the island adopt a policy of encouraging a type of tourism–ecotourism–that places an emphasis on natural attractions and discourages the construction of large hotels for mass tourism.

"It is important to emphasize that in ecotourism, the presence of all tourism services infrastructure will have to be subordinated to that which is fundamental: the attractions of a natural or cultural nature that are found in the area…," said the report, prepared by Estudios Técnicos consulting firm. "In other words, natural attractions of the destination and its cultural-historical manifestations are more important than the hostelry buildings or restaurants." The recommendations explicitly discard the possibility of mass tourism. "Large-scale tourism that alters the natural environment must not be considered," stated the report’s executive summary.

"The plan lays out the requirements for sustainable development," said former Commissioner of Vieques and Culebra Juan Fernández, who stepped down Jan 1. "Development must have the focus of protection of the environment." Other government agencies questioned about the master plan requested time to review the voluminous plan given that the new agency heads were appointed just last week.

Some residents expressed concern that despite the master plan’s intent, developers will try to build large-scale tourist resorts on the islands.

"We know there are powerful economic and political interests who want to turn Vieques into one big Palmas del Mar," said Robert Rabin, of the Committee for the Rescue & Development of Vieques. But the private-sector Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association agrees tourism should remain small scale in Vieques and Culebra. Erin Benítez, Hotel & Tourism Association executive vice president, said that though Puerto Rico ought to have a variety of tourism products, the limited resources on Vieques and Culebra call for low-density, low-impact tourism without high-rise hotels or condominiums. "If they want to call Vieques and Culebra, Puerto Rico’s ecotourism islands, I think it’s a good idea," she said.

The master plan defines ecotourism as, among other things, tourist activity based on natural attractions conserved within a protected environment, low-density development where natural areas are abundant and constructed areas don’t dominate the landscape–all evidence tourism doesn’t threaten natural systems–and a variety of recreation zones designed for the protection of fragile resources. "Given these circumstances, Vieques can and must aspire to become a world-class ecodestination," said the report. "Within the tourist industry, nature and ecotourism markets have the greatest growth." Citing the World Resources Institute, the plan said ecotourism is growing at an annual rate of 10% to 30%, while traditional-conventional tourism is growing at 4% annually. "The island of Vieques has a competitive advantage in having the natural, cultural, and social infrastructure necessary to promote itself as an ecodestination," said the report. "In this way, Vieques’ natural and cultural-historical attraction will help in diversifying and strengthening the tourism product Puerto Rico offers."

Fabián Martínez, director of federal programs for the municipality of Vieques, said he believes a balance should be sought in the kinds of tourism offered on Vieques, but the practice of walling-off beachfronts and limiting beach access should be prevented. "Being such a small island, we must not permit walls along the beachfront like you have on the big island; we just don’t have the room," he said.

Estudios Técnicos drafted the plan as a result of a process that included broad public participation and the participation of a board of experts in various disciplines, which worked closely with the Committee for the Rescue & Development of Vieques. But some residents warned much has to be done to implement the plan and its implementation will require active participation by the community. "Theories are great, but turning them into reality is another matter," said Vieques environmentalist Stacie Notine. She said the many political divisions in Vieques could hamper the implementation of the plan. Notine noted the central government offered to help Vieques through its special communities program, which could have served as a catalyst for implementing the master plan, but that Vieques activists rejected the special communities, saying the community was better off helping itself. "But to have community development, you need a sense of community," commented Notine, on the divisions wracking the community.

Local hoteliers also liked the idea of restricting tourism to low-density developments and ecotourism. "I’m very enthusiastic; I agree with all those things," said Burr Vail, owner of Hacienda Tamarindo. The hotel and restaurant owners, however, weren’t consulted in the drafting of the plan, said James Weis, owner of Inn on the Blue Horizon, who nevertheless said he agrees with a goal of low-density development. "That’s why I came here in the first place," he said.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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