Though beach towns in the Caribbean islands make for great all-inclusive vacation destinations for foreigners, the money that’s poured into these areas typically leaves with the tourists, making foreign businesses big bucks while doing little for the local economy or environment.

But one small town is trying to avoid that common pitfall by keeping business in the hands of the locals through small-scale, low-impact ecotourism that sustains the environment rather than degrading it.

The focus of this new idea is centered on the town of Miches (pronounced MEE-chis), which was settled hundreds of years ago and is currently home to about 9,000 people.

The town has a lot of potential, says Donald J. Melnick, a conservation biologist who is also the codirector of Columbia’s Center for Environment, Economy and Society. The program's researchers began working with the local inhabitants back in 2007 to help create a sustainable tourism industry.

According to the New York Times, the researchers envision tourists camping in platform tents, hikers in its lush green hills, people riding horseback on pristine beaches and others heading out to sea to watch whales, dolphins or manatees.

In addition, the researchers are hopeful that the town’s downtrodden waterfront plaza will one day be lined with locally owned restaurants serving locally caught cuisine.

But to make this vision a reality, it’s going to take a lot of work, acknowledges Melnick, especially because up to this point Miches' environment has not been very well taken care of.

For example, the town's electricity is sketchy, its drinking water is contaminated, the beach is filled with trash and the nearby rivers are either clogged with invasive species or polluted with agricultural runoff.

To clean up this mess, the researchers at Columbia have identified and began to work on a number of problems. For example, they’re currently working with fishermen volunteers to count marine mammals, assess the health of coral reefs and measure the effect of invasive water plants.

The researchers are also working with townspeople to come up with projects that will improve sanitation, like getting people to build latrines rather than use the waterways as toilets.

Though the program is making headway, Melnick admits that he had “grossly underestimated” the time that the project would take, which has swelled from about five years to possibly more than a decade.

Still, if the community can pull this off, the payback will be worth it. At least, that’s what everybody is hoping.

At the very least, Miches is avoiding becoming like so many other beach resorts, such as the nearby Punta Cana resort, which is largely financed by foreigners, by taking the first steps to create a low-impact resort that actually benefits the local people.

Only time will tell whether the people of Miches will be able to resist the lure of all-inclusive resort-style development, especially as the economic crisis eases and people start itching for a nice little vacation on the beach.

Low-impact tourism
Caribbean town seeks to become a vacation destination without sacrificing the environment or the local economy.