The rapid pace of resort and vacation home developments, particularly along coastlines and on islands within a day’s reach of the North American market, is contributing to a variety of environmental problems. The problems range from destruction of mangroves, coral reefs, coastal forests, and native biota, to shortages of water, energy, and local foods such as fish and lobster. Economically, ownership and use of coastlines is shifting from nationals to foreigners. Much of this coastal tourism development is more about real estate speculation than long term investment. Many investors strive to get in and out of projects within a few years and make decisions designed to maximize quick profits. For instance, the growth of golf courses is not based solely on market demand for these activities. In Costa Rica, only 3% of international tourists play golf, yet most resort developments include a golf course as part of their plans, because golf courses increase the value of both the resort and vacation homes located near by. The fact that foreign ownership increasingly dominates coastal regions, that ownership frequently changes hands and involves multiple layers of investors and managers, and that vacationers and home buyers are only on site for brief periods, makes for a highly unstable situation, with little commitment to the long-term well being of the region. It can be said that there are many owners of coastal resort development, but few who take ownership.
The idea to hold an Innovators Symposium grew out of a study on global trends in coastal tourism that CREST (then CESD) carried out for World Wildlife Fund in 2007. In the course of research and interviews, we began to identify a small group of architects, builders, developers, investors, bankers, and others who are experimenting with sustainable development of large scale coastal resort and vacation home projects. Rather than building conventional all-inclusive gated resorts, the “innovators” are trying to build in ways that are more integrated with the local communities and native landscape. Most are designed to be more open, incorporating local architectural design and materials. All are building to conserve energy and water; many are building to comply with LEEDS and other ‘green’ certification standards. Often they are also putting large parts of their land under conservancies; some are putting a percentage of their profits into funds to support community and conservation programs. While all stated that they are convinced that there is growing consumer demand for more environmentally and socially sensitive resorts and vacation homes, they also acknowledge that they face considerable resistance from government agencies, investors, and even their partners who are locked into conventional development patterns and are unconvinced that ‘green’ alternatives can be profitable.