Political unrest on the mainland, explosive development, rapid migration and population growth, infrastructure bottlenecks and fragile ecologies have threatened the livelihood of these small tourism-dependent islands in recent years.
I’m talking not about the Honduran Bay Islands but the Samui archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, half a world away.
The Samui islands, like the Bay Islands, survive mainly off tourism and fishing. They are approximately the same size and population as the Bay Islands and face the same sorts of problems. I have been traveling and diving in both places since the early ‘90s. I have watched their tourism industries grow exponentially and watched the resulting problems mount. I have also seen many positive changes. Each has done better at managing some of those problems and worse at others.
Koh Tao, the northernmost of the Samui islands and the most popular for beginning divers, is where I spent most of my time. Like Utila, Koh Tao is basically a rock. It has poor soil but splendid coral and good-sized fish populations, including pelagic species. Unlike the Bay Islands, though, Koh Tao is not part of a reef system. That part of Asia was formed by geological upheavals, and the islands are basically large piles of rocks. It’s the same underwater.
The tourism industry has exploded on Koh Tao in recent years. As on Roatan and Utila, foreigners own the majority of the diving operations. They own most of the larger tourist facilities as well. Most of the manual labor, meanwhile, is done by migrants from Burma, who outnumber the Thai on the island five-to-one. They are paid about $6 a day, less even than the Honduran minimum wage of $7 a day (although I used to pay my workers on Roatan $20 a day).
In general the Burmese on the island, like the Thai, are very respectful, honest and caring. There is very little crime on Koh Tao, and that’s one area where the island appears to have a clear leg up on the Bay Islands.
In the six months I spent on Koh Tao I heard of only one hammock and a couple of motor scooters being stolen. In contrast, petty theft and break-ins are a daily occurrence on Roatan. If you leave your dive gear to dry on your balcony, there is a good chance you will never see it again.
I have never been robbed in Honduras in 20 years of travel here, but its violent crime rate is infamous. I’m sure there is crime on Koh Tao that I didn’t see or hear about. There is no Koh Tao Crime Watch page on Facebook keeping track of it. But the local rumor is that the Thai mafia extorts fees from bar owners and from Farang (Gringos) who are working on the island illegally and in return keeps the petty crime under control.
You have to look pretty hard to find a police officer on Koh Tao. There are only about a dozen on the island, and you only see them making traffic stops, checking motorcycle registrations, etc.
One area where I would say the Bay Islands are doing a better job is environmental protection. The Bay Islands are taking a much longer view when it comes to their ecology. More of the Bay Islands ecosystem is under protection and subject to day-to-day management, and it shows. Sadly, on every single dive that I have done in Thailand, I have seen at least one Red Bull bottle.
Koh Tao has no organized recycling program, and everything you buy comes in some kind of plastic. The people that do collect PET and cans pay less if the can is squashed! The Bay Islands have a long way to go on recycling, but collection bins have been popping up in more and more places on Roatan, and beer bottles have a deposit. On Koh Tao they are thrown out or sold for a few baht a kilo.
Koh Tao has no equivalent to the Roatan Marine Park – a non-profit entity created by the dive shops that works with and through the authorities and the local community to protect the local marine ecosystem. The closest Koh Tao comes is the Save Koh Tao Project. Among other things, this entity constructs artificial reefs to grow coral and manages the buoys and moorings for the island. It also accepts grants from major corporations and runs internship programs for profit, something the Bay Islands might want to emulate.
Roatan is also doing a better job at managing scarce freshwater resources. Koh Tao has a huge water shortage. Every day new wells are being drilled, but the aquifer is so depleted that some of the larger resorts have their water shipped in from other islands at a cost of about 600 baht (Lps 350) per thousand liters. Even so, very few buildings on Koh Tao have a method of collecting water. Only a few have cisterns. On Roatan most homes and resorts collect their own water, and almost every new construction has a cistern.
Being small islands, both areas struggle with expensive and ureliable electricity. Here the record is mixed. The Bay Islands are using more renewable energy. There are solar panels and wind turbines all over the place. I only saw two solar panels on Koh Tao, and the wind generators that they are installing appear to be akin to that Monorail from The Simpsons. On affordability and choice, however, the Thais may have a leg up. Customers there have the option of purchasing electricity either from the government or from private producers. Many use both the government power and the private power company, so they will still have lights if one or the other – but not both – goes down. The Central Government subsidizes the public power, and the poorest households receive their first 300 baht (US$9.30) free. The private power is four times the price of the government power.
Tourism on the Bay Islands took a hit from the political turmoil on the mainland in 2009, when the military removed President Zelaya. But lest folks here think the grass is always greener on the other side, Thailand is still reeling from a military coup in May, its 14th (not counting failed attempts) since the introduction of its constitutional monarchy in 1932 and third since 1990. Before Zelaya’s removal, Honduras had not experienced a coup since 1975.
In sum, there is no perfect place on earth for a tropical island dive vacation. All locales have their problems. It would seem the Bay Islands of Honduras and the Samui archipelago of Thailand have a lot they could learn from each other. They face similar challenges and struggle for support from their central governments. Hands across the Pacific, anyone?
William Engel was, until recently, co-proprietor of the Lost Moose nature lodge on Roatan’s East End.