A consortium of environmental organizations has raised an alarm about a proposed megaresort in Belize that received maximum glam cred in May at what the Daily Mail described as the “most exclusive party” at the Cannes International Film Festival. John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston were the spokespersons for Italian developers of an eye-popping getaway that could pose a threat to the ecologically fragile Lighthouse Reef Atoll, a world-famous coral reef system. The atoll is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the famed Great Blue Hole. It's an important part of Belize's marine biodiversity, which includes more than 500 species of fish, three sea turtle species and one of the world’s largest remaining populations of the endangered West Indian manatee.*
The resort’s planned private jetport, electric Formula One racetrack and the an outdoor amphitheater dedicated to Andrea Bocelli might generate buzz among glitterati like Heidi Klum and Adrien Brody, both of whom were present at the Cannes event, but it could also taint a country that prides itself as being a magnet for ecotourism. Representatives for Travolta were contacted but provided no comment.
Rachel Graham, executive director of MarAlliance, says that the development plans for the atoll ignore that Belize is one of Earth’s marine biodiversity hotspots.** The Puerto Azul mega-resort would stress four fragile habitats. Dredging and silt generated by the proposed international airport could affect coral reefs and sea grass whereas removal of mangroves in the upper two thirds of the atoll could endanger key nursery areas for a range of commercial species of fishes and invertebrates, Graham says. Upheaval of the sandy beaches could put at risk some of Belize's remaining undisturbed nesting beaches for the critically endangered hawksbill turtles, she adds. “The loss of the only productive mangrove and sea grass habitat in the north of the country's most remote atoll could have significant long-term impacts not only on iconic species of sharks, rays and turtles but also on commercially important lobster, conch and a range of snappers and groupers,” she says. Also, thousands of resort guests “would also need to be fed, and may attempt to rely on the marine resources found at or near Lighthouse Reef Atoll, which would place additional stresses on fisheries and likely displace traditional fishers,” she notes.
Representatives of Belize’s ecotourism industry, including Stewart Krohn, Chairman of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, are concerned about the development’s potential impact on the nation’s natural resources. “Belize’s most important economic assets are: one, our world-class natural attractions and, two, the fact that this fabulous natural resource base remains relatively intact,” Krohn says. “To turn one of the world’s great and unique natural habitats into a theme park for billionaires defies sanity. It would be like building condos on the slopes of Mount Everest,” he adds.
None of this fantasy is a done deal. An official government environmental impact assessment of the Puerto Azul project has not been conducted, and Prime Minister Dean Barrow has said that the current plan for Puerto Azul is unrealistic and has yet to be approved. Several key Belizean government officials, however, including the ministers of tourism, Manuel Heredia, and of trade, Erwin Contreras, attended the Cannes promotional event. According to a press release from several local environmental groups, a key question about this has yet to be answered by the Belizean government: “Who paid for Minister Heredia, Minister Contreras and their entourages to attend the event? Were taxpayer dollars used or were project developers able to purchase the perception of a governmental green light by hosting the Belize delegation?”
In addition, Graham is unconvinced that any proposed economic benefits of the megaresort would reach the majority of Belizean citizens. “The flow of funds would remain largely out of the country,” she says, “and Puerto Azul would likely not employ many Belizeans, shifting jobs to foreign workers who cost less.”
*Clarification (6/24/14): The last two sentences of this paragraph were edited after posting to more clearly state that manatees inhabit Belizean waters but are not found at the Lighthouse atoll.
**Correction (6/24/14): This sentence was edited after posting to correct Rachel Graham's affiliation.