Protecting Paradise

Visitors landing at Providenciales, the most populated of the Caribbean’s Turks and Caicos (kay-kos) Islands, are greeted with the sight of excavating cranes, while roaring bulldozers drone out the locals’ gossipy banter. But the building frenzy goes far beyond the jaunty blue and lime-green walls of the new airport. It can be seen in the realty offices, golf courses, gambling casinos and luxury resorts springing up along the island’s rough-hewn highway.

Turks & Caicos. Credit: Tracey C. RembertThe islands are naturally rich in beauty and lures for the ecotourist, but rapid growth threatens the developing industry. Anticipating a surge in tourism, the country has begun a planning process that, it hopes, will curb unsustainable development and properly manage the islands’ abundant but at-risk resources.

The country welcomed more than 110,000 tourists last year, a 19 percent increase from the previous year, says John Skippings, deputy director of tourism. To get tourists to pay for some of the inevitable damage they wreak, the Turks and Caicos (TCI) Conservation Fund was established. Bankrolled with a one percent share of all tourist and accommodations taxes, it will provide a means for physically managing the islands’ 33 national parks, marine reserves, sanctuaries and historical sites—which were, until now, protected only on paper. The tax will also fund environmental monitoring, build a national environmental center, and increase national park staff, which had previously totaled just three people.

Says Governor John Kelly, “This is one of the most important projects our government has taken on in recent years. The continued growth and health of industry here is dependent on protecting what we’ve got—but that’s under threat. We need to manage the environment so industry can survive.”

Lynn Garland, manager of the newly-formed Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP), says, “Our environment is under increasing threat from sewage discharge from marinas, pollution from tourists, fertilizers, oil spills and irresponsible disposal of solid wastes. Destructive salt mining has added to that.”

To emphasize its commitment to protecting natural areas, the government has banned jet-skiing, waterskiing and spearfishing, and is focusing on wastewater “pretreatment” for area hotels to curb chemical and fertilizer runoff. A less-destructive buoy mooring system is now in place for boats, with more planned. Collected fees will bolster marine monitoring. The government has also begun teaching ecotourism ethics in schools, and offers free classes to tourism employees—from hotel clerks to boat drivers—that will encourage an environmental ethic hopefully passed on to guests.

Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Bubbles

Beneath the clear, sparkling turquoise waters of Provo’s Bight Reef, parrotfish, hawksbill sea turtles and sand-sifting mojarras explore the newest additions to their reef home: bright blue and white signs atop small artificial reefs. One of several projects the government has undertaken with the help of nonprofit groups, the signs steer snorkelers away from fragile coral heads, and onto a trail which guides them through an underwater paradise. Drawings educate passing swimmers on the reef’s ecology and its residents. Colorful beach signs point tourists to the underwater trail head, while reminding them of proper marine etiquette.

Islanders increasingly worry about the coral reefs—the islands’ main attraction—which are already vulnerable to pox, bleaching and pollution runoff. Marine biologist Marsha Pardee Woodring says area reefs are so popular that they’re “showing the wear and tear from hordes of visitors.” Ron Carnum, a condominium owner near Bight Reef, says, “There’s damage out at Grace Bay you can see from the shore, because people walk all over the reefs.”

From Middle Caicos’ vibrant flamingo ponds and its historic Crossing Place walking trail, to the endangered rock iguanas at Little Water Cay (pronounced “key”), the country offers numerous delights for nature-lovers—but vigilance is needed for their protection. Conservation efforts at Little Water Cay recently garnered Islands Magazine’s Ecotourism Award. Once threatened by domestic animals and development, the iguanas have now been concentrated on the uninhabited cay to repopulate. Visitors can view them on a CRMP-sponsored boardwalk that runs through the reserve. There’s also whale watching, spelunking, underwater photography, and plenty of nature trails for biking and hiking. Visitors may even catch a glimpse of JoJo, the islands’ intrepid resident dolphin.

Ian Mcleod, president of the Hotel and Tourism Association, says, “From our standpoint, the protection of our environment, our heritage, is critical. Tourists come here for the environment. And the experts know how quickly it can be destroyed. I’ve seen in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas what the traffic can do.” Resident Chuck Hesse agrees, “We’re very accessible here, but very, very vulnerable.”