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How has tourism changed local perceptions of the ocean?

Utila’s first dive shop opened in 1991 and twenty years later there are over 10 dive shops and resorts. The growth of this dive industry and the low price of an open water course has lured in many budget travelers to the Caribbean island. As tourism increases on the 11km long island it leads to an influx of mainland Hondurans coming to Utila along with dive professionals from around the globe for work, which has led to the population increasing exponentially.

Tourism has its positives and negatives for the island but I wanted to look into how it has changed the opinions of Utilians as they witnessed this change firsthand. I spoke to a few locals who work at the Bay Island College of Diving (BICD) and the Utila Lodge ranging in age from 20 to 50 and their answers were as follows:

Albert is a captain at BICD and the increase in tourism has changed his opinion of the ocean. He now realises the importance of keeping marine animals alive rather than fishing them for food. He used to catch and eat turtles every other month with the meat lasting a couple of weeks for his family. He hasn’t eaten turtle for fifteen years. Albert also used to fish regularly for lobster, conch, crab and other fish. He now cannot remember the last time he ate lobster. This benefits the reef and the tourists who are more satisfied after seeing an abundance of marine life. Having a job in tourism also makes Albert more money and is more rewarding than the jobs he used to have, for example working on freight ships. If he got offered another job today he wouldn’t take it.

Another boat captain, Foster, has realised since tourism has become a big part of Utila the amount of garbage in the ocean has reduced. If the aesthetics of the ocean were gone then so would the tourists.

John, a dive instructor at BICD is only 20 and is already doing his PADI Staff Instructor qualification. He became a diver as the income it brings him is a lot better than a job he would have on the island if tourism wasn’t so big. Tourism has changed his life and career.

Queen Anne (or Queenie as everyone calls her) has been working at the lodge for over ten years. She has noticed that as more people have come to the island everything is being destroyed. She mentioned that when she was growing up here they used to have everything in abundance because they took care of things in the ocean. For example, when they caught a female lobster and saw she had eggs, they would put her back. Now this isn’t the case as fishermen are taking anything they catch regardless of size or reproductive stage and people do not care anymore. This is an indirect consequence of tourism as it isn’t the tourists but some of the community from the mainland who have different beliefs and cultures than those from the Bay Islands.

Another dive instructor at BICD, Donna, says that she has become more aware of ocean topics since becoming a diver. For instance she had no idea about overfishing and has now noticed the decreased amount of reef fish on dive sites. Donna also said that the tourism has changed Utila’s culture and people, especially her, as she is more open minded to what is going on in Utila. She has noticed that tourism is just a money making business and people aren’t taking care of the reef.

These are just five peoples’ accounts of tourism on Utila and their stories all differ. Although most are more conscientious about the ocean there are still those who continue to fish as they did decades ago, catching turtles, which are endangered, and other species which have a minimum take size. Some continue to take what they want without realising that the species are what bring tourists to Utila. This is just an example of one island in the Caribbean, but this is happening worldwide, and hopefully one day we will all realise the importance of the ocean. If we nurture the environment it will nurture us.

Author Lisa D’Silva 2015, photocredit Justin Enns.


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