Blackadore Caye is an uninhabited island off the coast of Belize. To get there, it takes a 45-minute boat trip from Belize City, the capital of Belize, where the country’s big international airport is located. It takes 15 minutes by boat to get to Blackadore Caye from San Pedro, the closest town to the island.
Its natural ecosystem is a mangrove forest, but if you visit Blackadore Caye now, you can see how this mangrove forest has been damaged. Fishermen traveling to Mexico frequently stop at Blackadore Caye on their way. They cut down the mangrove trees to use them as firewood for cooking. The deforestation of the mangrove forests has led to erosion of the island’s coastline. Conch are plentiful around Blackadore Caye, and they are a popular food for people who pass through the island, so empty conch shells are scattered all over the beach. Blackadore Caye used to be the home to many palm trees, but now only a few of them are left. The rest have been uprooted and transplanted to the nearby town of San Pedro, where they are part of the decorative landscaping around the city’s hotels that were built during Belize’s tourism boom. Fishing has caused the populations of some of the tastier species that live in the waters around Blackadore Caye to dwindle. So what does any of this have to do with Leonardo DiCaprio?
The connection between Leonardo DiCaprio is not through any of the characters he has played in his films, not J. Edgar Hoover, not Romeo, not a victim of the Titanic, not notorious con man Frank Abagnale, not even more notorious stockbroker Jordan Belfort, not teen basketball player Jim Carroll. It also does not have anything to do with DiCaprio’s early status as a teen heart throb or with the fact that he played so many memorable film roles before winning an Oscar. Blackadore Caye has never appeared in any of DiCaprio’s movies. The connection between Blackadore Caye and Leonardo DiCaprio does not have to do with acting at all.
Our generation knows Leonardo DiCaprio best as an actor, but perhaps in the future, when new actors come along to play interesting film roles, we will remember DiCaprio best as an environmental activist. Throughout his career, he has been outspoken about the need for environmental conservation, and he has contributed money to projects related to environmental sustainability. His house has solar panels, and his personal fleet of cars includes a Toyota Prius, an electric Tesla Roadster, and a Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid. These are not the flashy cars you would expect to see an A-list celebrity like DiCaprio driving; the Prius is even frequently the butt of jokes about the affinity that practical, un-ostentatious suburbanites have for it. Rather, DiCaprio chooses his rides for the same reason that he has chosen Blackadore Caye, namely, out of a desire to protect the environment.
The first time Leonardo DiCaprio visited Blackadore Caye was in 2005, during his first visit to Belize, and to hear him tell it, it was love at first sight. He described it as “heaven on earth”. He was taken with its biodiverse marine life, from its manatees to its coral reefs. (The second largest coral reef system in the world is located in Belize.) It was not very long until DiCaprio and his business partner Jeff Gram decided to buy Blackadore Caye. He had big plans for the island, and now it appears that his plans are about to come to fruition.
Blackadore Caye is scheduled to open for business in 2018 as a resort dedicated to eco-consciousness and environmental sustainability. Ecotourism is a growing sector of the tourism industry in Central America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica is a regional leader in ecotourism, with many resorts built on environmentally sustainable principles and tourism experiences designed to let visitors experience the country’s natural environment. Belize is a comparatively recent arrival on the ecotourism scene, and DiCaprio’s new Blackadore Caye resort will do much to put Belize on the map of ecotourism destinations.
The project, called “Blackadore Caye, a Restorative Island”, is a joint effort between DiCaprio and Delos, a real estate development company based in New York City and led by Paul Scialla. At first glance, it will look a lot like other island resorts built for the purpose of luxurious tropical vacation getaways, but Scialla and DiCaprio mean what they say about the project having a “restorative” effect on the island. It will have spacious villas and swimming pools that, when viewed from a distance, appear to blend seamlessly into the ocean, but it will operate in such a way as to help the island recover from the deforestation, overfishing, and coastline erosion that have plagued it in recent decades.
The villas will be built on a platform that extends out over the water. That means that guests will be able to look through the windows of their villas, or perhaps even the glass floors of their villas, to see colorful tropical fish swimming through an artificial reef. Meanwhile, the island will also be the site of a manatee conservation area with the just the kind of marine grass that manatees like to eat. As for restoring the island’s mangrove forest, the project team will remove invasive plant species that threaten the mangroves and plant new mangrove trees.
The masterminds of this project are no strangers to real estate development or to ecotourism. Gram, who jointly owns the island with DiCaprio also owns Cayo Espanto Island Resort. Like Blackadore Caye, Cayo Espanto is a high end resort on another private island off the coast of Belize. The cost of staying at Cayo Espanto for one night can exceed two thousand dollars. The Blackadore Caye Restorative Island resort will be operated by Restorative hospitality, which is a division of Delos. Delos, for its part, has a long history of mixing a concern for the environment with a taste for luxury. Its advisory board contains many members who have a good track record as far as being friends of the environment, including DiCaprio himself, as well as self-help author Deepak Chopra, former Congressman Richard A. Gephardt, and physicians from the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic.
New York City residents know Delos best for its eco-friendly condominium building at 66 East 11th Street. A unit in this building sells for more than $39 million, and its luxurious amenities are designed with health (some might say health fads) in mind. The condos have special lighting that is designed to promote good sleeping habits and restorative sleep, and the kitchens have juicing stations. Even the showers are infused with vitamin C. Scialla says that Delos projects are designed to do more than just leave “zero impact” on the environment; he actually aspires to heal the places where Delos builds.
In a way that sounds a bit reminiscent of the futuristic gardens of Disney’s EPCOT in the 80s, DiCaprio says that he hopes that Blackadore Caye Restorative Island will serve as a model for future ecotourism projects. He hopes that its conservation areas will be as much of a draw for tourists as its top of the line fancy amenities. He wants to attract research conferences on conservation, so that people who are working on conservation projects elsewhere can see what it looks like when the restoration of an island that has been damaged by human impact really works.
According to the CIA World Factbook and to a study by the World Resources Institute, ecotourism is a very important part of the economy of Belize. It accounts for 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and provides jobs for a substantial number of its 341,000 inhabitants. Belize is no bigger than the state of Massachusetts, but it has great biodiversity, from manatees and mangroves to coral reefs and tropical fish. Despite its richness of plant and animal species, Belize does not have very strict laws to protect them. One of the reasons that Costa Rica has become such a leader in the ecotourism market is because of its environmental protection laws, and Nadia Bood, the head of the Belize office of the World Wildlife Fund, says that a new zoning plan for the coastline should go into effect soon. Those who work in the ecotourism sector in Belize hope that stricter environmental protection laws will help to support the country’s ecotourism industry.
But does ecotourism help the environment, or does it really make rich people feel good about themselves by making them think they are helping the environment. Jan Katz, who teaches at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration says that whatever carbon footprint you might be erasing during your time at an eco-friendly island resort like Blackadore Caye you make by flying to the island. Katz says that people would make more of a positive impact on environmental conservation by taking the money they would have spent on their tropical vacation and donating it to an existing conservation program. According to Katz, the real reason that people go to conservation-themed island resorts is for the luxury experience and because it is a status symbol. Ecotourism or not, it is not cheap to vacation on a private island off the coast of Belize.
Jason McLennan, the architect in charge of designing the resort, says that the buildings at Blackadore Caye Restorative Island will adhere to the strictest standards of environmental safety and sustainability. It will be the first resort in the world to meet all the requirements of the Living Building Challenge, a building code McLennan himself designed and which includes guidelines for water and energy self-sufficiency as well as rules about what kinds of building materials and building techniques can be used. For one thing, only about half of the island will be designated for buildings; the rest will be conservation areas for plants and animals. Most of the building materials will be locally sourced, and builders from the area around Blackadore Caye will be taught about the standards of environmentally sustainable building before they begin work on the project.
Many of the health and wellness technologies present in other Delos projects will also make an appearance at Blackadore Caye. The villas will have LED lighting that is designed to promote healthy circadian rhythms based around being awake in the daytime and asleep at night. The air and water purification systems will be environmentally sustainable, and guests will not be allowed to bring plastic water bottles to the island. When guests arrive, they will receive an “ecology orientation”, in which they will learn about how to protect the environment both during their stay at Blackadore Caye and after they return home.
In addition to villas, which will be available for rental by the night, much like hotels, Blackadore Caye Restorative Island will also include 48 single family homes, which will be put on the market for sale once they have been completed. They are expected to sell for somewhere between $5 million and $15 million. But with ownership of the Blackadore Caye houses comes responsibility. The most expensive of the houses are the ones on parts of the island that are so narrow that they have both a “sunrise beach” and a “sunset beach”. Homeowners will be expected to adhere to the same environmental sustainability code as temporary visitors to the island. They will be charged a monthly fee for meals and housekeeping services so that all the structures on the island can be maintained accorded to the strictest principles of sustainability.
Blackadore Caye Restorative Islands is a private island resort built on an idea. Its underlying idea is not just environmental sustainability but also on restoring the island’s natural environment.
For more info on this and anything else Belize feel free to contact Will Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Ambergris Caye Belize