Island Destinations Rated: Caribbean
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North America Pacific/Australia/NZ South America
Panelists exchanged comments, which were kept anonymous to maintain survey neutrality during the rating process. These lightly edited excerpts offer a glimpse of panelists' varied points of view and the reasoning behind each score. They are not the views of the National Geographic Society.
"Tremendous aesthetic appeal with pristine beaches and healthy reef system. Tourism is up-market and low density. Large hotels have altered formerly pristine coastal settings, damaged archaeological sites, and required the importation of labor."
"Big plus: The island has eschewed large cruise ships, minimizing the impact of thousands of day-trippers. Islanders are aware of Anguilla's special providence and aren't selling it off at the pace seen on other Caribbean islands."
"The beaches are gorgeous but it is becoming a place only the ultra-rich can enjoy."
"Classic mass tourism destination. Emphasis on beach tourism. Hotels are generally not energy-conscious. The island has a severe problem with disposal of solid waste. Because hotels are mostly foreign-owned, the local population only receives lower-end wages. The major assets, the beaches, are in danger of overuse and erosion."
"The Heritage Quay area is a wonderful example of integrating the historic heritage with present-day commercial activities. The built heritage all over the island is very rich."
"Because of a notoriously corrupt government, the land is beautiful but relatively uncontrolled. They have lost touch with much of their heritage. One beautiful fortress is preserved by tourism, but there isn't much else along those lines."
"Massive development of high-rise hotels on the west end results in serious traffic congestion. Also heavy dependence for hotel workers on expatriate labor. Cruise ships have resulted in a tacky downtown."
"The high-rise hotels lining Palm Beach are a good way of maximizing bodies on a beach while minimally impacting the island's interior. Vast majority of islanders are employed by tourism and know it's their bread and butter. The attitude towards visitors is genuinely warm and inviting. The Arikok National Park appears to be well-protected."
"Very little aesthetic appeal. The island has become almost exclusively a sand, sun, sea, and casino experience. Tourists are not educated on the ecological and/or historical elements of the destination."
"There's no 'there' there."
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Out Islands, Bahamas
"The Bahamas Out Islands vary a great deal. For every island that has local involvement and ecologically conscious development, there is another dominated by outside investment, where exploitation of the natural environment is the rule."
"Some of the most beautiful islands in the world but are being threatened by big development, second homes, and a loss of everything Bahamian. Still there are some special places like Andros, San Salvador, and Inagua."
"The allure of Eleuthera and its little sister Harbor Island has been discovered big time—chickens crossing the road mix with celebrity sightings."
"Aesthetically pleasant for those who only care about a beach and a BBQ. Rather appalling in terms of diffusing wealth or educating tourists about the Bahamas."
"The biggest threat lies with selective development by European-style resorts that come in and exceed the labor supply of the islands, resulting in the importation of off-island labor and the accompanying change in social character."
"Densely populated, with some of the highest visitor arrivals in the region. Although very clean, demand on marine resources has led to over-fishing, including the flagship flying fish. Oral and other traditions are fading, or becoming watered down and commercialized for visitors."
"Bajan culture is strong and evident, and locals relate warmly to visitors. However, the volumes of cruise visitors overwhelm Bridgetown and bring far fewer benefits than stay-over visitors. The agricultural landscape is aesthetically appealing."
"Tourism is well-organized, with the populace sensitive to its economic importance. Barbadians are conscious of their environment. There is recycling of plastic and glass bottles. The beach areas are kept meticulously clean and the water pristine."
"Away from the tourist areas, Barbados offers unbelievable scenery, isolated beaches, fascinating culture, and a rich history. The future is likely to continue submerging the real Barbados to bring in more seekers of beaches, golf, and winter homes."
Bermuda, North Atlantic
"One of the most crowded places on Earth, and one of the tidiest. There is a remarkable dedication to the preservation of its archaeological, historic, and maritime heritage."
"Built environment is well preserved as is its colonial British atmosphere. Cruise ships have a major impact, although harbor office does a great job of making sure ships conform to environmental regulations. The diversified resort economy—lots of non-chain, independently owned beach resorts dot the southern coast—acts as a bulwark against the mono-economy of cruise ship tourism."
"Culture is still strong, but racial tension continues to grow and is a problem. Over-built and very expensive. Lovely beaches and beautiful club atmosphere, but the cruise ships in the middle of town are not attractive."
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"Hailed for its conservation practices, Bonaire's coral reef management and sustainable tourism awareness program deserve special mention. Areas of concern are the rapidly growing real estate sector and government intention to expand tourism, with potential stress on natural resources."
"It's all about the diving . . . and for good reason. The reefs are among the most easily accessible in the world and are reasonably protected."
"High aesthetic appeal showcasing desert isle character. Some resorts now detracting from the small destination feel."
"Stewardship of natural environment has been a hallmark of Bonaire, yet island is now poised to become overdeveloped, and sewage treatment is minimal."
"Up to a dozen cruise ships visit at once. Port is essentially jewelry and curio shops. Island is water short. New cruise ship dock is nearly atop Paraiso reef and next to Chankanaab ecological site, Some sites are well managed and protected, but overall the island is stressed, particularly as most ships arrive at the same time."
"The reefs of Cozumel have some of the highest fish density/biomass of the entire Caribbean. The entire marine environment is a reserve and well-enforced, supported in part by the tourism."
"Hurricane impacts are still noticable, but much has been done to restore the situation. Unfortunately there has not been much effort to preserve character or sense of place in recent structures."
"Cozumel can be taken as an example of the need of establishing limits to the number of visitors an island destination can hold at a single time."
"The Cozumel Country Club is the first golf course in Mexico designated a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary from Audubon International."
"Ideal climate, nice beaches, and cultural and architectonical values make it attractive for different types of tourism; some more appropriate than others. Other economic interests compete with tourism and the environment. The economic situation of high debt and slow growth have not helped to improve stewardship practices and policies."
"Tourist arrivals are on the increase. The offering seems focused on heritage tourism and history. Areas of concern are: violent crime on the increase with alleged high number of murders; deficiencies in drinking water distribution (and utilities); and the presence of oil refining pollution close to the tourist corridor."
"Curaçao has done a remarkable job in embracing its architectural heritage and protecting hundreds of significant sites."
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"Beautiful country. Still largely forested, amazing biodiversity, great bird watching and scuba diving. Because Dominica doesn't possess the traditional beaches of the Caribbean, it is often overlooked."
"The Nature Isle is aptly named—awesome power and incredible beauty of nature unspoiled. Its lush mountains, indigenous population, art, craft, agro-based products, and small-scale accommodation facilities all add to the opportunity for sustainable tourism development."
"The island has not changed much since Columbus first spied it. While cruise ship tourism has remained low, it threatens to overrun specific sites."
"A serious dichotomy between lip service to preserving and protecting its wilderness, which is the major product, and the soliciting of more cruise ships, the proposed oil refinery, and support for Japan on the whaling issue."
"A high-end destination aimed mainly at the U.S. market with luxury hotels and diving. The massive damage from Hurricane Ivan showed that even a very rich island is extremely vulnerable to devastation. Other than tourism and offshore banking, no economic alternatives."
"The ratio of tourist arrivals to residents is greater in the Cayman Islands than any other Caribbean destination. Grand Cayman feels more American than Caribbean. Cruise ships will be more obvious than before with the planned construction of a new dock accommodating four vessels at a time. The dock will negatively affect the island's star attraction—diving—much the way the new pier did on Cozumel."
"Grand Cayman is just beginning to take stewardship seriously. Of note: sudden concern about human impacts at Stingray City and major dive sites."
"Grand Cayman is worthwhile only as a gateway to Cayman Brac or Little Cayman. The two smaller islands are delightful. Grand Cayman might as well be South Florida."
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"In 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed 90 percent of the country's infrastructure and agriculture. Post 2004, the only promising economy is tourism. It will take years to revive agriculture, particularly the nutmeg industry."
"Grenadians uphold their social/cultural integrity. A strong feeling of nationalism and island pride. Ecological quality remains high, despite Ivan's destruction. The coastal zone is not overbuilt. The forested and mountainous interior is ecologically rich and aesthetically appealing. Yachting, scuba diving, bird-watching, and use as a honeymoon venue is appropriate."
"A special place with rich culture, heritage, and biodiversity. Development is coming in and the government is so desperate they are selling off protected areas."
"Aesthetic appeal high, with lovely natural harbor and wide vistas. Tourism development seems driven towards competition with other islands, such as Barbados and St. Lucia. This would spoil its assets."
"Beautiful destination for yachting and high-end tourists. Water is scarce so resources must be carefully managed. Good environmental awareness among the local population, who guard their islands zealously. Yachting discharge into the ocean is a problem. Given their fragility, there is need for strict development controls. Otherwise, attractive, friendly people, and good quality of life."
"One of the last, best hopes of the Caribbean. Bequia is a gem and the Tobago Cays, though overrun with boats, remain the best place to snorkel in the region. The only inauthentic place is Mustique and the two private resort islands."
"Visitors are not sensitive to their impact on the environment, especially marine. Many yachties do not see themselves as being 'on' the destination, and is even truer of cruise ships, which boost arrival numbers while doing little for the islands' economies."
"A relatively large island with moderate population density. As a French Overseas Department, it is subject to European environmental standards. Renewable energy already being used: geothermal, wind farms, and solar panels. Tourism is predominantly of the mass type on the beach, but a growing consciousness of sustainability is emerging."
"Heavily developed. Despite much of the island looking modern and bland, there are still pockets of full-on French Creole culture. Overdevelopment of the south coast of Grand-Terre (the eastern wing of the island). However, much of Basse-Terre remains pristine and, in some places, dramatic. Well-maintained trail system. Offshore islands of Les Saintes are a treasure, though they get a lot of day-trippers. Marie-Galante has an interesting rum history, with most of its 100-or-so former windmills still standing."
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Isla Mujeres, Mexico
"Quiet little destination now getting overcrowded with day-trippers from Cancún. Natural aesthetics still charming but human-made additions are tacky. Some tourism has benefited locals, but most visitors learn little about the history of Isla Mujeres."
"Development has been hectic, but the island still feels like a break from the insanity of Cancún. It is not beautiful by any stretch, but is soothing. Low-key enough that it feels like a hideaway."
"The island bears little resemblance to its former incarnation. Yet, while it's very touristy, the Mexican government should be commended for its measures to protect the island and reef areas. Much is off-limits to undersea activities. Above ground, a small archaeological site is maintained fairly well."
"Both beautiful and ominous. The crime situation is well known, and the all-inclusive resort industry isolates foreign tourists from the country to an extreme degree. Over-fishing has taken a serious toll, and the national parks are under siege."
"North Coast and Negril are a mess. But Port Antoinio, Blue Mountains, Cockpit Country, and the South Coast offer authentic experiences."
"Many visitors never experience the rich heritage that the island has to offer, as the 'locking away' of tourists behind all-inclusive gates has led to resentment and crime against visitors. This discourages independent travelers who really want to experience the island's culture, food, and music."
"Rich and diverse cultural and heritage background with a diverse natural environment and landscape. Large resort complexes provide jobs to locals, but most of the income goes to the owners."
"Many beaches are spectacular, others are covered in discarded plastic bottles. An entrepreneur could set up a mighty recycling empire here."
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"Great French culture and magnificent scenery."
"Developed vis-à-vis other Caribbean islands due to its status as a French Overseas Department, but not overly so. Sustainable developments include alternative energy productions, i.e., wind, geothermal, and solar. Small, locally beneficial rural development projects in agritourism, nature tourism, etc. A balanced mix of the all-inclusive type of tourism, i.e., Club Med, and smaller, more independent hotels, etc."
"The worst traffic jams in all the Caribbean, especially between Fort-de-France and Rivière Salée."
"Tourists are almost all French. Built heritage and excellent museums make great contributions. Locals often antagonistic. Tourists tend to stay in their hotels and on the beach. Not many cruise ships. Environment well cared for."
"Ideal for the visitor seeking a quiet, laid back, picturesque vacation in the company of friendly islanders."
"The culture and people are true to their traditions, as reflected in the buildings and homes throughout the island. Ecotourism opportunities take people into the mountains and valleys, educating folks on the history and natural aspects of the tiny island."
"Great natural and historic beauty, but paradise is under serious threat. The government has ambitions to construct more resorts, which would be unsustainable both environmentally and socially (workers would need to come from elsewhere). The famous coconut plantations are dying thanks to a virus introduced via unquarantined plant stock imported by a luxury resort."
"Although the 196-room Four Seasons resort dramatically altered the island, it has been good for the island. Outside that property, older plantations have been restored into hotels or homes."
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Providenciales ("Provo"), Turks and Caicos
"Prides itself as 'Beautiful by Nature'—yet must import practically everything—including Haitian labor—in order to maintain a 'sun, sea, and sand' tourism industry."
"Once a raw, romantic coastline, now a strip of mega-hotels on an increasingly crowded beach. Thankfully, surrounding islands are seeing Providenciales as a cautionary tale."
"Rampant development at a grand scale. Little attention to ecosystems. Nature is seen as a white sand beach, not a healthy ecosystem."
"Fifteen years ago there were only 1,000 people on Provo; today the unofficial number is more than 30,000. Many are ex-pats and undocumented aliens drawn by the building boom taking place on Provo, primarily along Grace Bay, one of the loveliest beaches anywhere. Development is proceeding at light speed. What was once a three-story building limit quietly became a five-story limit. Two projects nearing completion rise seven stories. Some native islanders fear that development is at the expense of the islands' identity and culture. Also at risk is the endangered Turks and Caicos rock iguana, surviving in the wild only where it is not threatened by introduced species like dogs, cats, and rats. The silver thatch palm exists only here and the Bahamas, but the six-foot trees are the first things to go when bulldozers move in."
"Conditions vary enormously. The renaissance in cultural interest begun in the 1950s still thrives, and most Puerto Ricans are zealous about protecting their heritage sites."
"Suffering from too many people, both residents and tourists, and too little environmental sensitivity on the part of both."
"Some parts of San Juan have changed quite a bit in recent years, like the Condado neighborhood, which is looking more like a mini-Waikiki every year! The fort, El Morro, and the neighboring streets of Old San Juan are still a pleasure to stroll. Except for the constant traffic jams in and around San Jaun, El Yunque rain forest is a wet, tangled joy of a day trip. "
"The tourism industry is realizing they need to diversify their all-inclusive sun, sand, golf, and casinos product by concentrating their efforts in nature and community-based products. The environmental quality of the island (especially its northern coast) is in serious trouble due to the massive build-out of hotels, condos, and housing. The aesthetic appeal is practically ruined by these structures."
Roatán, Bay Islands, Honduras
"The reefs are in dire straits. Bleaching, increased algae cover, loss of key reef grazers, etc., are all big problems and getting worse, as is real estate development, the huge influx of mainland Hondurans looking for work, and a major change in the character of the island."
"Roatan is essentially intact, but increasingly the target for cruise ships, sometimes two or three at the same time. Island totally different when no ships are in—then it is a largely authentic, laid-back place to dive, swim, and meet with local culture."
"Roatan is a cancerous growth slowly spreading to the north coast of Honduras. It is a greed-driven, unsustainable tourism model, degrading its terrestrial habitat and the surrounding reef system. Most businesses are owned by Americans, and short-term return on investment is paramount."
"Roatan could very well stage a recovery in coming years. Residents and visitors who have seen the bleaching reefs and diminishing sea life are beginning to understand what it will take to reverse the damage. Efforts to educate local fishermen are showing signs of success."
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St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
"Mixed bag; this island hosts one of the largest petrochemical plants in the Caribbean and has significant environmental problems. Coastlines are stunningly beautiful, whereas inland shows significant signs of mismanaged land and environmental degradation."
"St. Croix has a natural and cultural heritage showcased through its National Park Service and National Wildlife Refuge sites."
"Social and cultural integrity the most intact of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Environment was drastically changed in the plantation era—a part of cultural heritage. Crime is a major problem, as is water quality on many beaches. Could be sustainable if rampant development is kept in check. Hotels mainly big, with a big footprint on the island. Few locals benefit from tourism. A real West Indian island where locals work and live, not a tourism-dedicated playground."
"The addition of the Virgin Islands' first casino in 2001 was a dumb move—the garish facility draws few tourists, but a fair quantity of locals, who gamble their paychecks away."
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
"St. John is the best in the Caribbean. Much of its natural environment has been saved by the Park Service and ecologically minded business people. Its long term prospects, especially for the locals, will depend on good sustainable tourism management."
"The national park has saved this virgin from being tired like St. Thomas. There's almost no trash along the roads, you can hike for a couple of miles without coming across structures, and there are fabulous bays reachable only on foot (or boat); snorkeling is outstanding. Still, several beaches are heavily impacted by cruise ship visitors ferrying over from St. Thomas. The park is understaffed. One-third of the island is not park and is under siege with over-scaled villas. Cruz Bay is losing its ramshackle charm to newer buildings containing shopping malls and real estate developers. Traffic is congested."
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"The island is beautiful, offering the restored city of Basseterre, scenic landscapes, the Brimstone Hill Fortress (a World Heritage site), and the annual St. Kitts Music Festival."
"Fragile ecosystems are under pressure from infrastructure and property development. Historic structures start to be appropriated and 'Disneyfied.' St. Kitts has opted for large resorts, casinos, golf courses, and cruise ships over smaller-scale tourism. With pending development of the so-far unspoiled southern peninsula by luxury chains, the wild beauty will be gone."
"Repurposing the old sugar cane train tracks into a cruise ship attraction has been imaginative, if struggling."
"Upcoming 'star' destination in the Caribbean. Extremely attractive, natural, lush beauty. New fame could lead to overdevelopment."
"St. Lucia's most noteworthy scenery, the Pitons, near village of Soufriere, yet this community is filled with rude individuals who prey on tourists for handouts. Dependence on all-inclusive resorts (a majority of the hotel rooms on the island) has limited creation of a thriving restaurant scene. It also limits authentic interaction with locals, creating us-and-them atmosphere."
"Kweyol culture festivals and successful annual Jazz Festival enable St. Lucia to offer both the old and the new."
"A gorgeous island that could easily fall to generic tourism and the encroachments of all-inclusivism."
"Preservation takes second place to tourism development. Government failed to extend moratorium on turtle fishing, which immediately decimated the resident population built up carefully over the last years."
St. Martin/St. Maarten
"The Dutch side is a mess: out of control high-rise and strip development, loss of community character, traffic congestion, and schlock. The French side looks great by comparison."
"Development and cosmopolitan population out of control. Crime rate is high, but the island remains a popular destination for casino gambling and nightlife."
"Food is fabulous everywhere, and with all the hustle, there are still peaceful beaches and low-key places to visit."
"The French side is much more aesthetically appealing, both natural and human-made, than the Dutch side. The latter is overdeveloped, and Philipsburg is dominated by shops catering to cruise ship travelers."
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St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
"A mess—too many cruise ships disgorging their passengers into the small town. Totally spoiled and low-quality, high-volume destination."
"The main town is essentially one big, ugly jewelry store, but the island is nice outside of the main town."
"Must have been a lovely place before it became the shopping mall for cruise ships. Still some pretty beaches away from the shoppers and stunning views from steep hills."
"Once upon a time, St. Thomas was the most beautiful island in the Caribbean, with sculpted peaks and deep coves. It's all developed now, and the pressure of up to ten cruise ships in a day (almost 2 million arrivals a year) erases that natural beauty. The native population is unfriendly, with a coldness that borders on outright hostility."
"Agricultural economy has had mixed impacts on ecological quality. The loss of the banana sector may mean fewer challenges with pesticides, but increased poverty. Picturesque natural beauty; some historical preservation."
"Good terrestrial and marine ecological quality. Conservative, religious (Christians), and friendly people, mostly agrarian. Low development contributes to pleasing aesthetics. Expanding tourism development, especially along coastal areas, relatively small scale. Many local people employed in tourism."
"Vast portions of this lush-lush island remain isolated and untrampled. People have connectivity to their Afro-Carib roots. But Kingstown ain't no garden spot. And it has some damn rough neighborhoods."
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"Charming with its laid-back rural ambience, beautiful beaches, reefs, and rain forest. A close-knit, strongly religious society. Long history of environmental stewardship. Environmental challenges stem from fast-paced Trinidad investors."
"High-end development on prime coastal areas by foreigners has caused friction among the local population."
"One step away from heaven, the idyllic countryside and easy pace transports one. However, its popularity is causing an upsurge in development which puts tremendous pressure on the natural resources."
"Aside from Crown Point, where the coral is wrecked, this is a lovely island. It's unfortunate the coastal jungle trail on the far northwest has been graded and a road is going in."
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
"Beautiful island with considerable environmental quality. Threat of development looms."
Most tourism associated with chartering boats—highly appropriate and sustainable tourism the way the BVI is regulating it."
"A highly priced island where natives are fiercely proud and protective of their territory."
"Failure to control cruise tourist visits, including permitting up to 3,500 visitors a day, is seriously diminishing quality of life for BV Islanders."
"Tortola is rapidly experiencing the problems of mass-tourism destinations, thereby losing its charm and uniqueness. Blame the cruise ships, poor land-use planning, and high-density development. Its sister islands in the BVI are far more attractive."
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