PUNTA GORDA, Roatán – A decade after the first cruise ships approached this scenic Caribbean coastline, bringing the promise of a new tourism economy to an island that was still using a partial barter system, Roatán has become an international tourism destination unlike anything else in Central America.
Ten years ago chicken buses used to lumber slowly across the green and sparsely populated Honduran island, stopping in small fishing towns to drop off occasional adventure travelers in search of a bargain lodge. Today, tourists zip around the island in SUVs, passing the neon glow of Wendy’s and other fast-food joints as they return to their luxury resorts on the beach.
Indeed, the cruise-line industry, which during the first eight months of 2010 brought 192 cruise ships to Roatán and generated $43 million in tourism revenue, has arguably had a greater impact on this island than the arrival of the first Spanish explorers 500 years ago.
But change has come much slower to the Garifuna community of Punta Gorda, the oldest continuous settlement on the island. Founded in 1797 by a community of “Black Caribs” (a mixture of Carib and Arawak Indians and Africans who were taken from St. Vincent Island by the British and then marooned on Roatán), Punta Gorda remains one of the last corners of the island untouched by tourism.
The Garifuna, however, are not on the margins of the tourism industry by choice. On the contrary, villagers say they want to have more access to tourism and the economic benefits it has brought to other parts of the island.
“Right now tourism is not too powerful around here. It’s still little [sic]; tourism doesn’t exist in the way they said it was supposed to be,” said Julio Morales, speaking in English as he leans against a palm tree.
Morales, 54, said he worked in the tourism industry for more than a decade as a boat captain for the Paradise Island Beach Club. But other than a few Garifuna who leave their village to go work in the resorts or perform dance and drumming acts for tourists at the cruise-ship terminals, tourism has had little effect on the community of Punta Gorda, Morales said.
“They said that the whole island is going to be a tourist center and things like that. But the tourists only come to our community once in a blue moon,” Morales said.
He added, “Here there are lots of young men who can do artisan crafts in wood and stone. But they are paralyzed because they don’t have any support. It’s not that they don’t want to work, they don’t have any support.”
Morales said more Garifuna would be able to participate in the tourism sector and improve their cultural offerings if the government provided them with resources and assistance.
Alfredo Arzú, president of the Garifuna tourism committee, acknowledges that it’s hard to bring tourists from the cruise ships to Punta Gorda because the town doesn’t meet the “industry requirements” for infrastructure and safety.
As a result, he said, he takes groups of Garifuna dancers and drummers to the tourists, rather than bringing the tourists to town to see the cultural acts in the village.
“People don’t come here as much as we’d like; we want more tourists,” he said. “We have always talked about why we don’t do the cultural acts here in town.”
Still, Arzú is optimistic that as more cruise ships arrive, there will continue to be a greater penetration of tourism into the Garifuna communities.
He notes that the Garifuna community of Satuyé has recently started to receive a trickle of tourists, as has the Honduran mainland Garifuna community of Sambo Creek.
“Little by little tourism is allowing us to promote our culture,” he said. “Before the cruise ships, tourism was zero.”
It’s that future that’s inspiring some of the youth of Punta Gorda to get involved in tourism, either to help develop their community, or as a ticket out.
For Janira Ramírez, a 17-year-old mother who completed a post-high school course in tourism last December, the industry offers the promise of a salaried job and an experience that goes beyond the limitations of her village.
“I already did an internship at Fantasy Island, where I learned how to take reservations, do check-ins and work in the restaurant. I made a lot of friends there,” she said. “I hope to get a job there.”
But for Serafino Martínez, 20, tourism is a chance to generate income without leaving his village to find work.
Last year, Martínez built a modest bamboo and thatch restaurant on the beach with a sand floor and space for about 10 people to eat.
“We get about 20 people a week,” he said. “Sometimes the tourists come in taxis; they love the (mashed plantain) seafood soup and the sand floors. And the tourists like to talk to the Garifuna who come into the restaurant.”
Tourism, Martínez says, is allowing him to make a living while preserving his culture and home.
The name of his restaurant says it all: “Nichigu Garifuna” or Garifuna Roots.