By Kate Zankowicz
Locusts are swarming the beaches of the Canary Islands and sea turtles are washing up on the shores of Mexico. With such startling ecological costs, how can one manage to frolic in the sand without a burdened conscience this winter? Although I was initially skeptical about ecotourism, I have suffered from the shock of accidentally discovering that raw sewage pipe while innocently combing the beach for cowry shells in the past. I decided that my trip to Saint Martin/Sint Maarten had to be more environmentally kosher.
For those readers who are envisioning being tangled up in mangrove roots while tracking the elusive Sacred Ibis bird, or being forced to tag and label heaps of turtle eggs, think again. You don’t have to be a freakishly avid bird-watcher or relish portage through the jungle to be an eco-tourist. Although Costa Rica may seem to be the most obvious eco-tourist destination, there are many Caribbean islands that are making a commitment to ecologically smart tourism practices, led by CAST (the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism) and various nature foundations and ocean reserves.
The small Dutch and French island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, for instance, boasts a Marine park and a bird sanctuary. This has been in response to the overwhelming number of tourists (1.2 million a year) who come to cavort on 92 km of pristine white sand beaches and turquoise blue surf. Paradoxically enough, the very things that attract tourists to the island are endangered by their presence there. The main town on the Dutch side, Phillipsburg, is replete with all the trappings of any North American shopping mall. There is a Tommy Hilfiger and Gap for the 20,000 tourists who come off the cruise ship each day to do some shopping they could very well have done at home.
It’s a quaint colonial town, but one that remains surprisingly silent about its colonial past: supposedly discovered by Columbus, invaded by the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the English, and even the Americans (Juliana Airport is the old U.S. military base). The island was a sugar plantation economy until the tourists started coming, and was a key producer of salt for Dutch herring until the resorts started being built. The border between the French and Dutch sides is marked by a solitary monument. The main difference is that there are sexier guavaberry cocktails and more nude beaches on the French side. Both sides are on the Euro currency, and accept every credit card imaginable.
In the face of a population that seems to double every few years, the marine parks and wildlife preserves are important steps in safeguarding the island from environmental degradation. The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation on the Dutch side has been instrumental in reducing the anchoring damage by establishing boat-free zones in the marine park, and also reducing the coral reef damage caused by cavorting divers. This last is done by building “reef balls,” artificial reef environments that are made from fibre-glass but simulate the real thing. These pockets of enclosed reef teem with stoplight parrot fish, cushion sea stars, queen angelfish, fire worms and conchs without endangering ecologically sensitive reef areas, and are still a diver’s delight.
The foundation also plants palm and mangrove to counter beach erosion, and has established a Turtle Watch to keep tabs on the three species that lay their eggs on the island: the green turtle, the hawksbill and the leatherback.
Although ecotourism sometimes seems like a shameless marketing tool, promising adventure in the rain forest, life-changing ancient cave exploration, or botanically enlightened hikes with native guides, Sint Maarten’s ecotourism is of a quieter variety. There are many hotels that profess to be “ecolodges” simply because they offer bird watching tours, and one should, of course, be aware that “eco” can be misleading.
But as I lolled about the beach, or sat beneath the tamarind trees, a hibiscus bloom behind my ear, I felt considerably more at ease knowing that just beyond the sand was a pelican reserve, and that my brief stint with scuba diving didn’t damage a single coral polyp. The fact that no one asked me to label a sea turtle egg made it even sweeter. And thankfully, there was not a single biblical swarm of locusts to be found.