TROUBLED by what it describes as half-star waterfronts at several resorts around the world, including the Caribbean, Reef Worlds has designed a plan that will see it pumping US$4.5m into recreating marine habitats in the region.
Mike Wallace, director of development at Reef Worlds, didn't reveal the names of the resorts with which it is seeking to partner on the project, but said it is currently in talks with "two well-known all-inclusive resort chains". He expects to have 10 to 15 on board by the time the building wraps up at the end of 2014.
"Our team was shocked," Wallace said after reviewing the state of resort waterfronts. "We discovered five-star properties with half-star waterfronts. Zones beyond the high-tide mark where natural reefs, colourful fish, and habitats were, are essentially gone, replaced with some old tyres, turtle grass and dead coral, and this was a global phenomenon."
The plan, he told the Jamaica Observer from his office in California, is to identify resorts that have an ecological track record and good environmental stewardship and give them funds to create underwater worlds featuring snorkel trails, scuba-training sites, coral propagation, etc. The resorts, in turn, will monetise the sites and put a percentage back into the development of environment tourism. He explained that each site will be different, as it will be directly tied into the resort's own footprint.
Reef Worlds is an underwater tourism development firm in the US with a team of marine biologists, reefologists, as well as designers who have worked on the Hollywood blockbusters Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean. It uses eco-friendly materials, which include local rock and ancient coral beds, in its made-to-order structures.
"There are no down sides to the creation of dynamic reefs when you have a great team of marine biologists and designers who treat the regional environment as their first clients," Wallace said in response to a question about the environmental impact of his company's underwater creations.
On the subject of financing, Wallace said: "Reef Worlds has a substantial development budget to bring these unique and iconic dynamic reef systems to our resort partner at no up front cost. It's pretty much unheard of in the resort and development space -- a tourism design-and-build company that is so confident that these sites promote the best of sustainable tourism and a boost to regional wildlife that they are willing to invest millions in the projects".
"So confident are we in our ability to fundamentally change the environment that we are willing to put five million of our own money into it," he told the Observer.
His decision to pursue projects in the Caribbean seems timely, given the region's push to mitigate the effects of warming oceans, rising sea levels and the disappearance of certain marine species. In 2008 the region launched the Caribbean Challenge Initiative with support from The Nature Conservancy and made commitments to conserve at least 20 per cent of their nearshore marine and coastal environments in national marine protected areas systems by 2020, and to create national conservation trust funds. A week-and-a-half ago a new phase of the challenge directed at accelerating conservation action and funding took effect when head of Virgin Atlantic Richard Branson hosted Caribbean political and business leaders at a summit on Necker Island, his home in the British Virgin Islands.
The Caribbean has 10 per cent of the world's coral reefs, 1,400 species of fish and marine mammals, and miles of mangrove forests, but they are increasingly under threat from events like over-fishing and coral bleaching.
"The region accounts for 40 per cent of coral bleaching," Wallace said. "Habitat loss is at the highest point it's ever been...Resorts spend millions of dollars on their landscaping but don't spend any on their waterfront garden...It's a US$20-billion enterprise and a lot of those tourists want to sea colourful reef and fish."
"To be at the head of what will soon become one of resort and development's key tourism offerings is an exciting place to be. The fact is they have run out of land-based development space and have forgotten their waterfronts as a place of engagement and branding. Most resort chains sub-contract out even basic snorkeling to third parties. We're bringing that all back to 40 years ago when once-pristine reefs were as close to a Caribbean resort as a snorkel from the beach.
"Colourful wildlife has not gone forever," he reassured. "It just needs the right habitat to come back. And we're building it, one iconic and unique site at a time.