Water Sports

Eco-Tourism: The Big Blue Way

kayakBy Anthony Taylor

It’s been some nine years since Florida-based writer Bill Belleville first addressed the issue of eco-tourism in Times of the Islands (Spring 1992). Then he called it “environmental and economic sense” and went on to state, “as this island chain (Turks & Caicos) edges up to a crossroads in its development destiny, it now has a very real option to choose eco-tourism as a direction . . . and one, that if properly played out, could boost the economy, preserve the environment, and provide meaningful, culturally-connected jobs for native Belongers.”

Almost a decade later, there is little in the way of true eco-tourism in the Turks & Caicos Islands. In the last five years, traditional tourism-related development has been both vast and fast, with all-inclusive resorts, hotels and condominium projects appearing at every turn and the numbers of tourists arriving each season also growing dramatically (from 120,898 in 1999 to 151,372 in 2000). The trend is set to continue and with the Islands opening up to European vacationers in the near future–via service from the U.K. by British Airways–the “high” season is only going to increase in length, not shorten and visitor impact escalate, not lessen.

However, the price of success can be high and already the impact of tourism on the ecology of the Islands can be seen, as highlighted by Marsha Pardee Woodring’s recent article, “Reef Relief” (Times of the Islands, Winter 2000/01). Thankfully the Turks & Caicos government has recognised the danger and through the efforts of several of its agencies and individuals–such as the National Parks Advisory Council, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources–is taking steps to address the problem.
But what of true eco-tourism as described in Belleville’s insightful article? Thankfully, there is one locally owned and run company on Providenciales that has embraced eco-tourism and is leading the way, so-to-speak.

On the surface, Big Blue Unlimited looks like most other dive operations. Based out of Leeward Marina, this small-but-growing company caters to small groups of divers, but there the comparison ends. It’s not only their state-of-the-art catamaran dive boats or their unusual logo that hint at something more, but also the numerous sea kayaks hanging patiently beside the dock and the office walls covered in maps, pictures and descriptions of some of the island’s land-based treasures.

Big Blue Unlimited was founded in the season of 1997/98 by Belongers Bobby Lavard and Phillip Shearer and at the time included Mark Parrish. (Coincidentally, this also happened to be the International Year of the Reef, which seems especially appropriate to Big Blue’s outlook.) In the last 12 months they have grown and added three more staff members, as well as a second boat to the operation. However, it’s Mark and new recruit Morgan Luker, in particular, who have been developing their eco-tourism operation, largely via their increasingly popular eco-adventure trips. Mark’s philosophy for these trips mirrors the principles of eco-tourism, in that he sees it as “a balance of using natural resources and the natural environment to promote trips that put back into the local community as well as realising a commercial profit.”

mngrvSome of the eco-adventure trips are actually kayak tours of varying lengths around some of the TCI’s most ecologically sensitive, important and beautiful coastline. Mark presently runs four “short-tours” per week departing from the dockside at Leeward to cover the short stretch to Mangrove Cay directly opposite. “One of the reasons these are becoming so popular is that you need absolutely no kayaking experience,” says Mark. “That and you get to see first-hand wildlife that most visitors don’t even realise is there, let alone ever get to see,” he adds.

Having experienced one of Mark’s trips for myself, I can attest to how easy, educational and, at the same time, fun, it was. In our gentle three-hour journey we saw juvenile sharks and turtles, upside-down jellyfish, a multitude of birds including whimbrels, herons and egrets, and a variety of other life too numerous to mention.

For someone who is as passionate about preserving the natural ecology of areas like the mangroves, you might be forgiven for thinking that the tour might turn out to be more like a lecture, but that’s never the case. Mark has a natural ability to tailor his input to the wishes of each trip’s participants. “Some people want to learn about everything they see, while others are content to just enjoy the scenery and serenity of it all, while only wishing to know superficial detail about what they are seeing,” he says.

Education is only one facet of eco-tourism, and as important as the protection of and education about a particular location’s ecology is the economic aspect. As world travel expands and countries such as the Turks & Caicos become more accessible, they find themselves at the centre of a tourism boom, which can change their economy forever. Local residents in traditional industries particular to each location, such as fishing and farming, can’t hope to compete with the money to be made by working in the new pre-packaged and sanitised, tourism-driven economy and so they leave to work in resorts, hotels, restaurants and bars–in many cases leaving important aspects of their culture behind.

What a tourism boom can provide, if managed and catered for properly, is the utilisation of natural resources to create sustainable income for locally owned businesses and individuals. In fact, studies have shown that the nature tourist actually leaves more money behind in a country than traditional recreational tourists, especially those staying at expensive all-inclusives.

Big Blue is addressing this issue by working with local people on the islands of North Caicos and Middle Caicos . As well as his short eco-adventure tour to Mangrove Cay, Mark is slowly building up trips to these two nearby islands. “Both North and Middle Caicos are ideal for half and full day eco-tours,” says Mark. “We take a boat over to North and, once there, take advantage of the smooth roads and lack of traffic to explore by bike areas like the town of Kew, the Wade’s Green plantation ruins and Cottage Pond before returning in the afternoon.”

“For our Middle Caicos hiking trips, we fly over in the morning with Global Airways and then hire Walter Hall or Ashton Harvey as guides for the day, while Hormel Harvey and Cardinal Arthur also double as taxi drivers and cave guides. It’s by utilising local knowledge and services to create economic alliances like these that we can not only build our business, but provide sustainable income for the resident population,” says Mark.

As well as building business relationships with local residents on other islands, Big Blue is building them with the government agencies whose job it is to help protect the history and ecology of the Islands. In particular, they are providing free space in their marina-side office for a National Trust information centre, out of which will operate the Trust’s Little Water Cay warden.

It’s this kind of proactive eco-tourism that will play an increasingly important role in protecting not only the ecology of the Islands, but the future economic prosperity of many families and individuals.

For more information, visit Turks and Caicos activities & eco adventures at www.bigblue.tc or call (649) 946-5034.

1 Comment

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Mar 2, 2013 16:14

I would like to contact Walter Hall

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