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The Next Place in the Sun

Honduras's Roatán has palms, peace, blackouts -- and big tourism projects

Written By: Candace Jackson
Published: Saturday, November 24, 2007

On this sleepy island off the coast of Honduras, the main tourist drag is a sand road lined with coconut trees and hand-painted signs touting $2 beers. Backpackers in flip-flops and scuba divers still wearing wet suits wander between dive shops, colorful souvenir stalls and fruit stands. Restaurants with thatched roofs are cooled by ceiling fans, and a seafood dinner can be had for $10 -- about the cost of a single cocktail in pricier parts of the Caribbean.

This quaint vibe may soon change. Though most Americans have never heard of Roatán, the place is well on its way to becoming the region's next "it" spot. Cruise companies, airlines and foreign real-estate investors are moving in, bringing new construction projects -- and potentially hundreds of thousands of tourists -- with them.

Royal Caribbean just inked a deal to build a $30 million extension to the island's cruise terminal, while Carnival is spending $50 million on its own port of call, which it says can handle as many as 7,000 passengers daily when it opens in 2009. Following the lead of other Caribbean islands, Roatán will become a duty-free zone next month -- a huge draw for hotel developers. Last winter, Continental launched a nonstop flight from Newark, N.J., cutting a 10-hour-plus trip with several connections to about five hours.

For now, Roatán remains a throwback. There are no major chain hotels. Most resorts have two dozen rooms or fewer, and many are locally owned. Stay on the island more than a few days and you'll probably start to recognize the people huddled around Sundowners beachside bar around 6 p.m., drinking frozen Monkey La Las, a blend of Kahlua, ice cream, coconut cream and usually vodka.

[Palmetto Bay Plantation]
Quiet, for Now: Roatan's Palmetto Bay Plantation

A visit to Roatán requires some flexibility and tolerance for the unexpected. Electricity goes out in spurts, so be prepared to eat by candlelight in restaurants or to sit in the dark until a backup generator kicks on. During the fall wet season, it can rain for days. And malaria medication is advisable, as mosquitoes can carry the disease -- a problem that has long been eradicated almost everywhere else in the Caribbean.

But the scenery is in many ways similar to other Caribbean islands, with white-sand beaches, turquoise water and hammocks strung between palm trees. There are densely forested parts of the island, too, and rolling hills covered in palm and fig trees. At Gumbalimba Park, you can take jungle canopy tours and explore pirate caves.

Island Times: Anthony's Key

Colorful houses are perched on stilts, with lines of laundry hung underneath. Locals are a mixture of black Caribbeans; a growing number of American, Canadian and European expats; and Spanish-speaking Hondurans from the mainland who have moved to the island looking for higher-paying work. Still, much of the population here lives in poverty, with the average monthly wage about $185.

The island's diversity comes from its colorful past. The first permanent settlers were the Paya Indians. Then, during the 1700s, pirates controlled the island, followed later by Carib-African Indians, or Garifuna, from St. Vincent. In the 1800s, freed black slaves came from the Cayman Islands. The descendants of each group populate the island today, and most locals speak English, as well as Spanish. Roatán and the other Bay Islands officially became a part of Honduras in 1859.

Since the 1960s, Roatán has been a hub for scuba divers attracted to its well-preserved barrier reef, the world's second largest. Though he has been to many places in the Caribbean and Polynesia, Gary Peck says the reefs in Roatán are some of the best he has seen. On one dive during a recent visit here he saw king crabs and a fish that looked "like a Christmas tree collapsing," says the New Orleans bed-and-breakfast owner.

The current wave of changes was set in motion back in 1998, when the region was hit by Hurricane Mitch. The storm devastated mainland Honduras and scared off divers. Local tourism leaders decided to diversify beyond the dive market and started targeting small cruise-ship companies. A few years later, companies like Royal Caribbean and Carnival followed.

It helps that cruise lines these days are constantly in search of new ports of call. As cruising has grown in popularity and competition from newer destinations like Europe and Asia heats up, cruise companies have added more off-the-beaten-track stops to draw customers back to the Caribbean region.

[Princess Beach]
Mayan Princess Beach Resort and Spa

John Tercek, vice president of commercial development for Royal Caribbean, says a major factor for the company was that other ports in the western Caribbean, like Cozumel, are nearing capacity, with 15 ships on busy days, compared with one or two in Roatán. Also, he says, "people like to be able to brag at a cocktail party, 'I've been to some place that you haven't.' "

A real-estate boom is being led by second-home owners and retirees from the U.S. and Canada snatching up beachfront property for a fraction of what it costs in other resort areas. In December, the Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort will open with furnished condos that have stainless-steel kitchen appliances and Wi-Fi.

A fruit vendor in Coxen Hole

Phil Weir, a real-estate agent from Aspen, Colo., first came to the island in the 1990s as a scuba diver. He has since married a local woman, had children and started one of the largest real-estate companies in Roatán, in part by reaching out to his contacts in Aspen. "There have always been divers who came here," he says, sitting in his office as the windows fog with mosquito spray. "Then the cruise ships started coming, and now people are buying stuff."

In the West End, upscale condos are under construction, along with a new suburban-style shopping plaza with air-conditioned shops. There's talk that an indoor shopping mall with an Applebee's is coming. Driving along Roatán's hilly roads, many of which have only recently been paved, it's not unusual to be stuck behind a truck full of cinder blocks chugging slowly up a steep incline spewing diesel fuel.

Ken Schadegg of Rhode Island purchased a second home near Sandy Bay, a town on the island's west side, a year ago. The natural beauty, lack of chain hotels and low prices drew him. "You get a whole lot there for your money," says Mr. Schadegg. Thanks to a Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta, if he leaves Providence, R.I., at 6 a.m. he can be on the beach by noon, he says.

[Scuba diving]
Scuba diving

On most days, the island's largest town, Coxen Hole, is a crowded commercial hub filled with nondescript banks and cheap electronic-goods stores. When a cruise ship docks, hundreds of tourists wander around its streets, shopping for trinkets, or crowding into bars.

Though considered safer than mainland Honduras, crime can be a concern in Roatán. The U.S. State Department warns of thefts and break-ins; since 1998, seven Americans have been murdered on the island. It advises tourists to avoid isolated beaches at night, as well as Coxen Hole.

Development is bringing a new set of problems. Many locals and divers are concerned about the impact of cruise-ship traffic and construction on the coral reef. Pablo Allonca moved to Roatán from Uruguay to work as a dive instructor. On a recent dive trip he swam back to the boat carrying a Sprite bottle and a framed picture of a girl with a dolphin. Still, the real problem isn't the trash, he says, it's construction debris settling on the reef. "The sediment falls onto the bottom."

Local Tina Nelson can see the cruise-ship dock from her home, but says she doesn't mind the influx. Last winter, she started selling Christmas-themed painted seashells on days when ships pull into port, laying some out on a card table and hanging the rest from a plastic Christmas tree. "When I see a ship pulling in, I come down," she says. On a sunny day a couple of weeks ago, she made more than $70. "People make that sometimes in a month here," she says.