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Downturn Opportunities Written by Jennifer Mathews Photos by Angela Agnew
How Bay Islands' Businesses are Dealing with Dwindling Number of Tourists

Worker makes renovations and improvements to Cannibal Café.

The tourist dependent economy in the Bay Islands has had to deal with a growing list of hardships: world economic downturn, swine flu, earthquake, June coup and political crisis, spike in crime and resulting negative press. Any one of these events would have caused a significant decrease in tourism revenues. Most business owners agree that this is the slowest they have ever seen, even slower then after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Bay Islands Voice interviewed many business owners to find out how they are coping. These interviews revealed prevailing attitudes and creative business survival tactics.
Some ask weather you can, or even should, market a tourist destination that is engulfed in a political conflict. US, Canada and EU countries all have travel warnings for Honduras, and carving out of Honduras areas that are "just fine" is a tricky strategy.
At an October Central American Travel Market convention in San Salvador, Ricardo Martinez, Zelaya Minister of Tourism, was quoted by Time Magazine saying: "I'd like to tell everyone to come to Honduras and that it's a tranquil place and everything is beautiful, but you think I'd be successful with that message? Of course not."
According to Martínez, Honduras' tourism industry, which grew by a 9% in 2008, has gone into a freefall and is down 70% this year. According to Martinez, the 155,000 Hondurans in the tourism industry are barely surviving if they have a job at all.
Martinez presented his views accompanied by a video of Honduran protesters clashing with riot police. "I'm not saying I am encouraging travel to Honduras, because I have shown you that the situation [for tourism] does not exist," Martínez told the journalists in El Salvador. "But what I am saying is, Please don't forget us, because we are going to solve this crisis. And once we do, we are really going to need your help."
Some argue that last year, the Bay Islands were actually benefiting from the world economic downturn as an economical destination, thus making the perceived tourist drop more dramatic. Yearly figures calculated by Coconut Tree Divers show a 66% drop from last year. With 2008 being a record breaking year in revenues, numbers in comparison to 2007 reveal a 50% drop.
Compounding the downturn are other problems: high unemployment and spike in crime. Reports of multiple robberies, usually petty theft, in excess of five break-ins a month have been reported from the neighborhood behind Pura Vida. Kevin Braun, member of the West End Patronato and owner of Seabreeze hotel and Cannibal cafe, has been working to raise funds for the new police station in West End, and for crucial supplies such as gasoline and flashlights for the increased number of officers.
The rising cost of electricity makes it even more difficult for businesses to stay open and some business owners have decided that it is simply not worth it. They have either sold their business, gone bankrupt, or closed for a period of time, working elsewhere to make money and ride out the slow season.
Every business interviewed indicated they are spending their savings, financial cushion, or personal funds just to stay afloat. Throughout the Bay Islands, the dive shops seem to be the most affected. "The reality is," said PJ Rowntree, Coconut Tree owner, "we're really just barely scraping by, just like everyone else." Many businesses reported not knowing how they will make rent this month: "we're hoping things will pick up by the end of the year."
Despite all the hardships, Bay Islands business owners are in remarkably good spirits, thinking positive, and are utilizing creative survival tactics. "We're too stubborn to go under," laughed Akel. Some Utilians even point to the downturn as a positive situation, saying that development was out of control on the island, and this has slowed the process.
Some businesses are taking the opportunity to invest in their locales, upgrade their service offer, and prepare for the return of high season numbers. Romeo's Restaurant in French Harbour, used three weeks of the summer to refit their location. "It's the first time we shut the restaurant, ever," said Romeo Silvestri, restaurant's manager. Cannibal Cafe also closed for three weeks for renovations and improvements. The Shark Cave is sticking to its five year plan of expansion. "When tourism comes back, we'll be ready and in prime position," said Roland Brooks, Shark Cave manager. Local fruit and vegetable truck vendor, Victor Antonio Cruz is looking to get in on the ground floor of a supplemental business opportunity to expand his earning potential.

The empty main road in West End on a Saturday afternoon.
Fearful of the unstable situation in which Honduras is portrayed, potential tourists are canceling their trips. Business owners are making attempts to create positive associations with tourism in the Bay Islands, sometimes contrary to what might be read by potential tourists in their home town newspapers. Rowntree has been working actively with PADI on publishing articles promoting Honduras. Tyll's Dive Shop has been giving stacks of brochures and information to any travelers going through Central America to leave at hotels. Several businesses are active on Facebook, MySpace, Trip Advisor and blogs, and are encouraging their clients to post that it is safe to visit. It seems to be working. Most dive shops and hotels reported that inquiries are beginning again for the end of the year and beyond.
Several businesses have been using national tour operators to promote Bay Islands to mainland Honduran clients and stay afloat. Palmetto Bay Plantation, Fantasy Island, Turquoise Bay, Henry Morgan, Paradise Beach Club, and Infinity Bay have advertised special promotions dropping prices as much as 50% and sometime offering all inclusive packages for ads low as $40 a day. "We're not making a lot of money, but it's paying the bills," said Cecilia Mendez-Chamer, Palmetto administrative manager. "When things start getting better, we'll make more adjustments."

While de facto Tourism Minister Abarca claims that Hondurans coming to Roatan do so as a show of support for Micheletti government, Martinez said that they do it because its cheap enough where they can finally afford it.
Utilians, in even deeper dire straits that Roatan businesses, has been employing the same strategy. In October, Ana Abarca, Minister of Tourism, met with several Utila businesses in to draft economical packages that promote Utila to mainland travelers. "On the weekends we're definitely seeing more Hondurans vacationing here," said Julia Centero-Keller, owner of Jade Seahorse.
Bay Islands industries not necessarily related to tourism have also been negatively affected. Martin Midence, Roatan electrician, had to drop prices to ensure that people can afford to employ him. "I can't afford to go anywhere," he said. "So I'll do what I can to help people out. At the very least, I can work. And if it doesn't help the economy, it helps in self-esteem." On Utila, according to Centero-Keller, prices have been cut to 60% for carpentry and maintenance services to ensure continued work.
Employee cutbacks have been a necessary strategy for some in the slow season. Coconut Tree Divers is down from seven to four instructors, which is reported as normal for this time of year, but wages and commissions are down for those they have retained. Tyll's Dive Shop is down from their normal two instructors and one dive master to one captain and one instructor. To compensate, they employ freelance dive professionals from the other dive shops that have closed. Restaurants have had the highest firing rate. Douglas Greene, manager of the Beach House Restaurant, has had to let all of his employees go, handling everything himself. His employees work on daily, as needed basis. "They actually make more money that way," reported Greene. Some restaurants, such as Pinocchio's, have cut their opening hours to a couple days a week, or to open upon request. One Roatan gallery owner will only open on cruise ship days. Employees at Chillies hotel were given the option of keeping their position, but with pay cuts. They will gain bonuses when busy.
For many, personal spending cutbacks have also been necessary. Business owners are canceling annual vacations and postponing planned purchases, even considering taking their children out of local private schools. Some are finding ways to be penny-wise in meals. The dive community is meeting regularly for group dinners and potlucks. "I've been having fun finding ways to keep meals to under Lps. 200 per person. If you can get it down to Lps 50- 60 per person you're doing well," said Rowntree. Many are also looking to their own natural resources. "We're lucky we still have a forest with food," said Centero-Keller. "I can go to my land and get avocados, crab and breadfruit." "It's financially hard right now, but we live on the island," said Brooks. "We fish, we farm, and we work."
In some cases, the downturn has created a sense of community cooperation. With a group of DMT's and no students to train, Gaynor Pook, owner of Coconut Tree Divers, offered open water classes to the local community, snorkel guides, islanders and teachers. "It helps my DMT's and helps the community," said Pook. Perry Wintle with the Reef Glider floating bar plans to offer specialized packages for events, weddings, and school occasions, that include water taxis and restaurants for transport and catering. "I want to do anything I can to include other businesses and help people out," said Wintle. Dorte Bockwoldt of Tyll's Dive Shop has enlisted her international community of friends, inviting them down for a dive vacation.
Fighting boredom is on the top of most people's minds. When morale started to drop at Coconut Tree, Gaynor Pook tried to keep the atmosphere light with activities such as BBQ's and wakeboarding. Kevin is re-opening Cannibal Café because "the employees are so bored, they're asking me to open." Midence reported. "I'm spending more time with my family and friends. The slow season is giving me extra time to enjoy it." Others are focusing on time at home, working on economical home repairs.
Roatan business owners are hopeful about the increase in tourism from the upcoming cruise ship season, particularly with the opening of the Carnival Cruise Ship terminal in November. "The cruise shippers who are coming are the ones who are paying the bills right now," said Bockwoldt. "Once more people come, there will be more and more exposure that Roatan is safe and calm," said Braun. The cruise ship business supports local jobs such as gift shops, clothing, massage, and braiding. The new Carnival Cruise Ship Terminal dock is expected to employ up to 500 locals directly or through tenants, with up to 1,000 more jobs created indirectly through taxis, tours, and other related business.
Utilian business owners are looking to national traffic to carry them through the hard times. This gives a different timeline for recovery in Utila, where business owners anticipate Semana Santa for the next high season. "Ultimately, however, we depend on international traffic for our economy," said Centero-Keller. "It's the way people are invested here and the way the island is set up."
While the Bay Islands remain dependent on the tourist industry, all business owners speculate about the recovery cycle. Factors that will indicate how the tourist market might behave in the upcoming years are the upcoming elections, the holiday season, and the world economic market. "We won't know what will happen until after November," said Governor Arli Thompson "It's basically a waiting game right now and just about everyone is holding their breath," said Braun. "We're holding our breath for sooner than later," said Mish. "When it does come back, I hope that makes it into the news." The question is not whether the tourists will come back, but when.

Tyll's dive masters play cards to pass the time.
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Autonomy at All Cost by George Crimmin

In the original contract we Bay Islanders basically got nothing. I believe that there were members of the British parliament that understood this principle and made various amendments that benefited us in significant ways. Queen Victoria's final letter sent to the inhabitants of the Bay Islands in May 1860 was read at a public meeting by then lieutenant governor Thomas Price at Coxen Hole. Queen Victoria's final words were, "My loving subjects, I now leave you to govern yourselves accordingly." In my lexicon that translates to autonomy.
According to my research, the governor General Uwins Elwin was in London at the time trying to have the treaty revoked. There were various demands which my late grandmother Joana Randleston, whose father John Randleston was born in Scotland U.K., assured me were granted. Included are: the freedom of religious observance for present and future generations, non-military service for Bay Islanders, freedom to elect our own representatives, ability to implement laws formulated and regulated by the local population and their representatives, the use of the English language in the counts and public records for perpetuity, and a key provision that we would be governed by resident officers of our own choosing.
Since I have never discovered or even heard of a document disclaiming these rights or denying these guarantees, my logical conclusion is that my late grandmother's memory and knowledge were totally accurate.
We have the documentation, what we need is the courage and the will to come together as one people and aggressively peruse what is rightfully ours. Let us not allow what we cannot do interfere with what we can do. We have dedicated educated and courageous individuals who can not only lead, but help us establish a prosperous, honest, law abiding community. To accomplish this we must elect individuals who are willing to put the common good before their own personal interest- a contingent that would pretty much disqualify most of the current office holders. We desperately need bold new leadership.
We may never get another chance. We must take charge of our own destiny, otherwise we will become irrelevant in our own land, if we are to survive as a people with a history and a future.

Ever since I was a boy I dreamed of Roatán and our sister Islands becoming autonomous. This dream is widely shared by a multitude of Bay Islanders. We have many role models - most of the other Caribbean Islands I have visited have enjoyed autonomy for generations. For instance, the Bahamas declared their independence in 1973 after three centuries of British colonial rule. Role models are important because people seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy.
At this particular time in our history it is more relevant than ever that we energize ourselves and use every avenue possible to achieve this goal. I am a firm believer that the harder you work, the luckier you get. The current problems facing this country are enormous. We should not have to suffer for the incompetence and corrupt leadership of the mainland. We deserve much better.
On July 24, I received a phone call from U.S. congressman, Democrat of Massachusetts James McGovern, who confirmed the fact that the leadership in Tegucigalpa was responsible for the mess we find ourselves in mainly because of the manner which in the former president was deposed. I found myself trying to defend the indefensible.
I also believe it's fair to say that we Bay Islanders, although we are suffering from the consequences of decisions made in Tegucigalpa, had little to do with what actually took place. Well, I propose the perfect antidote: autonomy.
For years I have been focusing on the November 1859 treaty which was really a draft, agreed to by John Lennox Wyke and Honduran president's envoy, Francisco Cruz. The treaty then had to be ratified by both houses of the British parliament. I can assure you that the final product that emerges from these ratifications rarely resembles the original version. It is my contention that the original treaty was significantly amended by the British parliament.

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Infant Care Center Provides Needed Care by Jennifer Mathews

A Roatan Children in Crisis Center Opens, Reaches Capacity after Two Months

All infants in the center are on an intended six month program. "The first priority is to place babies back with mothers if their treatments and rehabilitation have been successful, second with extended families, and third with a home placement or adoption, strictly to local nationals or residents," said Nelson. The center works closely with INHFA (Honduran Institute of Childhood and the Family), treatment programs, extended families, and donors toward this goal. "The whole idea is rehabilitation, not financial support to the families."
The facility has capacity for ten cribs, and the center has to screen vigorously to keep numbers manageable, unfortunately turning away children. According to Nelson, the requests for help are overwhelming. Strict parameters must be kept in order to function effectively. The child must be determined to be living in "dangerous circumstances," and the parent must be formally working toward rehabilitation and treatment, which usually occurs on the mainland. Admission is ongoing as the center operates with a revolving patient base. Nelson sees a definite need to expand, but is not planning on it in the near future. "In addition to space concerns are financial capacity, volunteers, and supplies, in order to provide quality support services," said Nelson.
Several Roatan businesses have supported the center with fundraising events and donations, including Bananarama's crab races, West Bay Lodge's baby formula donations, Hyde Shipping's donation of air conditioning equipment, Vegas Electric's donation of solar panels, and the Christmas Concert for the Angels fundraiser.
Support also comes from volunteers and students from the ESBIR bilingual school who receive their community service credit. Students Cheyenne Schaub, 14 and Kaela Watkins, 14, have even returned for a second volunteer term.

Familias Saludables staff members Ingrid Evette Conner, Valerie Nelson, Sol Angel Velasquez.

Opening in the first week of August, the Morgan Jayne Infant Care Center in Sandy Bay is already working to capacity. The idea for the center began in September 2008, and culminated with the opening of the building in August 2009. The center transitionally cares for infants in crisis from exposure to AIDS, or mothers who are recovering from illness, drugs, or mental problems, and is the only care facility on Roatan to specialize in infant care.
Central to the Morgan Jayne center's mission is providing physical and emotional support during crisis and rehabilitation. "This is a treatment center, not an orphanage," said Valerie Nelson, who spearheaded the Morgan Jayne Project. Her daughter Jane is the on-site director.
Nelson is director of Familias Saludables, HIV and AIDS support center in Coxen Hole. Begun in 2001 under the umbrella organization, The Dawn Land Foundation from Alberta, Canada, Familias Saludables was initially a project for reducing mother-child mortality on Roatan. The non-profit currently provides support, education and counseling to the AIDS community and beyond, as well as baby formula, clothes, vitamins and medications. Familias Saludables currently helps 78 families, 175 of them children. The Morgan Jayne Project expands the scope of services offered by Familias Saludubles.

Serious About Girls Basketball
New Sandy Bay Program Gives Girls Court Priority

Coach Trish Flanagan leads them through an intensive program designed to whip them into shape. The girls have been practicing for two months, two days a week. They are part of a new basketball program offered by the School of Life International Foundation (SOL), which offers several after school programs such as sports and fitness, art, health, and academics.
At this stage in the program development, Flanagan is teaching the girls fitness, discipline, teamwork, and the finer points of basketball. The goal is to develop a girl's basketball team to compete on the island and possibly in national programs to the mainland. The team is open to playing boy's or girl's teams.
The 15-20 year-old girls come from Sandy Bay and Coxen Hole to participate in the program. Nine girls participate in the program and this number is growing as popularity for the program spreads.
Flanagan initially got to know the girls through a literacy project she spearheaded in 2008, the reason for her coming to Roatan. In addition to the literacy program, Flanagan is now the assistant director at the Sandy Bay Alternative School, as well as basketball coach on the courts. Originally from St. Louis, she has a professional background in teaching, social work with at risk kids, and coaching basketball. She has been playing basketball since she was in the sixth grade.
"The biggest challenge will be rainy season," said about the open-air courts Flanagan. The courts are provided by AKR for the SOL programs. Flanagan is searching for alternatives, so that the program may remain consistent, no matter what the season. Flanagan knows the girls want to practice. "I'm most impressed with the discipline of these girls. They never say 'no' to whatever drill I give them."
The hard work of the girls is showing. "They are running drills at a level that I wasn't doing until after years of playing," said Flanagan. "This is my first time playing basketball and I love it," said Lisa Pinnace, one of the program's players. "All the girls do. I'm meeting people, getting exercise, and having fun."

Warm-up routine with trainer Trish.

Amidst the crowd of kids on the Sandy Bay basketball courts, a group of girls have court priority as they run intensive drills - first layups, then a series of dribbling skill sets, into a suicide drill, moving into core movement positions, running through passing sequences, and finishing with full court laps. The girls did not stop to rest.
Dozens Evicted
Oak Ridge Squatters Taken off by Police

Help did finally come and in the early hours of October 15, local police and fiscals descended on the unlawful tenant community. No one was injured during the forced removal of the people, but dozens of people ended up on the side of the road.
The day after the evictions, people were still scrambling to salvage wood from their sites. Some were loading the wood, onto trucks and howling it away to other living arrangements. About six families were camping underneath plastic coverings and on old mattresses.
The squatters claim that as many as 80 houses were built here. The site shows many fewer structures, some of them shacks, skeletons of structures mostly, most of them uninhabitable, but meant to serve as a claim markers for the lot owner. Some of the evicted said that they lived on the site for nine months. "The people [who wanted lots] came here from Los Fuertes, Coxen Hole, Sandy Bay," said Jorge Mejilla, one of the evicted. "They left us alone for the last three months. And we thought that it was all over."
Mejilla said that the group would hire lawyers who promised to help them legalize the properties, all 200 lots of them. The small lots, approximately 40 by 50 foot each, were according to Mejilla sold for cheap, even given away.

A young squatter carries his belonging away from the eviction site.

Over the last nine months, the budging street side Loma Linda community of houses and stores located on the side of the main road burst onto a valley due west of the road. The owner of the property, Servido Bush, lived mostly in the US and found it difficult to guard the property against invasions. "These people are destroying my property, digging holes. Nobody wanted to help me seven months ago when this happened," said Bush.
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Mahogany Bay Opening for Business

Carnival Cruise Lines Project is Expected to Provide Great Economic Impact for Decades to Come

The main attraction in the center is Coral Cay and Mahogany Beach. The extended beach area provides space for beach lounging, kayaks, glass bottom boats, and a playground area for kids. Development on the Cay utilized existing structures to create the Hurricane Hole restaurant and bar. Cruise shippers will access the Cay by pedestrian bridge, or a specialty aerial tram.
The tram was not in the original plans. Carnival did budget for a special attraction in the MBCC, but did not decide until later in the construction phase what that would be. "Every [cruising] facility attempts to find a popular feature to give extra value and provide something memorable for the passengers," said Mike Reimers, General Manager for Mahogany Bay. Reimers worked on Utila as a divemaster 15 years ago and has been working around the world ever since, his past appointment on Grand Turk. "Returning to the Bay Islands for this position is like coming home," said Reimers. The tram was built by Rainforest Aerial Trams, US company that has built trams in Costa Rica, St. Lucia, Dominica, and Jamaica. The $1 million tram project took one year to build. Moving at a speed of 1.3 meters per second, the 65 chair lift can move 1,650 people per hour. The passengers should reach Coral Cay in five minutes.
It took three landscaping contractors to finish the job and attempts at bringing in over 20 foot tall trees from Florida were foiled by Honduran Ministry of Environment (SERA). The project ended up utilizing local flora and fauna. According to Reimers the most difficult part of the project was dealing with natural factors, such as the earthquake and an unusually intense rain season, and the changing political situation.
The main plaza in Mahogany Bay is made up of 15 buildings housing 22 retail spaces, as well as three food and beverage spaces, two car rental offices, and a tourist information booth. In late October, all but one space had been leased. One building houses 15 craft stalls for local vendors and artisans. Also available for lease will be portable vending carts.
The plaza also contains a tourist educational area with two exhibits: one focusing on the Garifuna history and culture, and the other on the shrimp industry in the Bay Islands.

Construction at the Mahogany Bay cruise ship dock

The first cruise ship is due to arrive on November 20 at the new Mahogany Bay Cruise Center (MBCC). Construction on the $62 million project began in November 2008. This is the largest facility Carnival has built in the world, and one of the largest in the Caribbean.
Up to 600 Hondurans worked on the project as construction workers, welders, divers, underwater inspection, and environmental monitoring. Once finished, Carnival will directly employ 75 locals in the areas of food and beverage, retail, transportation, tour operation, security, and maintenance. An estimated 350-400 people will be employed by tenants in retail and food and beverage. An estimated 1,000 people will be employed indirectly through tours, taxis, and other tourist outlets.
Carnival representatives say that they made an effort to employ local companies and workers for all phases of construction. "We were conscious of the fact there had been problems in the past and wanted to keep the focus on hiring almost all locals, thus helping the immediate economy," said Reimers. Exceptions are American Bridge, who constructed the highly specialized concrete pier, Rainforest Arial Trams, and two Guatemalan specialists. Reimers is the only foreigner positioned on Roatan as general manager in charge of security and maintenance.
The cruise ship facility dock is scheduled to receive of 225 ships in 2010, an estimated 500,000 people arriving on four to eight cruise ships a week.


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