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For the TCI, sustainability of resources is not just a fashionable notion; it's basic survival. For centuries, island inhabitants have had to make do with the resources available to them. The land is largely arid and sandy; rainfall is sparse and fresh water a scarce and precious commodity.

So far, the government's emphasis on high-end, low-impact tourism has worked to temper the impact of rapid development and helped to maintain the delicate balance between commercial interests and environmental ones. Height limits set up for resorts along Grace Bay (famously breached before the recession hit by one brash, high-flying property) helped stem the dreaded coastal phenomenon known as the "New Jersey-ization" of the shoreline. Most of the newer resorts have even implemented their own eco-initiatives. The West Bay Club has its own waste-treatment system and recycles gray water (wastewater from dish, shower, and sink, and laundry water) for landscaping purposes. Each room in the Gansevoort is equipped with an Energy Management System (electricity is turned on with your room key), and a high-efficiency central air-conditioning system reduces consumption by 30%.

Of utmost importance to the nation is the maintenance of its most precious natural resource: the pristine marine environment, which includes the spectacular coral reef system. Maintaining the current status quo is paramount to preventing a "slide towards another spoiled paradise," says Mark Parrish, owner of the watersports operator and eco-pioneer Big Blue Unlimited. "The islands are still beautiful, the seas are still clean, and the reefs are the cornerstone of life," Parrish says. "The future of the TCI must lie in the proper management of the environment and in eco-tourism." Visitors can help out, Parrish suggests, by choosing low-impact excursions.

Eco-tourism got a big boost here when the entire Grace Bay area was awarded national marine park status. No commercial or sport fishing is allowed in the protected 2,630-hectare (6,500-acre) Princess Alexandra National Park. No jet-ski central this; and hopefully never will be. National marine parks have been established on and around just about every island on the TCI; for a full list of protected areas, go to the Department of Environment and Coastal Services website at www.environment.tc. Even outside park boundaries, mooring buoys have been established at all dive sites and mooring areas to avoid possible damage from anchors. TCI dive operators are a particularly enlightened bunch in regards to reef preservation and resource conservation.

The scarcity of fresh water has always been an issue on these islands -- never more so than now with the growing influx of visitors. To prevent water shortages, modern reverse osmosis plants have been constructed on Provo and Grand Turk.

The daily air importation of fresh food to meet the needs of the tourist population is leaving a hefty carbon footprint, however. It's been estimated that a whopping 90% of food consumed on the island is imported from the U.S., Haiti, and the Dominican Republic -- with a whopping annual price tag to match: The Turks & Caicos Free Press reported that in 2008-9 the food import bill came to around $63 million. That's why it's so heartening to hear that agriculture is undergoing a revival in the Turks and Caicos. In the fertile soil of North Caicos -- traditionally the breadbasket of the TCI, raising fruits and vegetables for TCI inhabitants throughout the 20th century -- farmers are getting a boost from government initiatives. Subsidies are reviving a 143-acre working farm in Kew, which is growing and selling produce in North Caicos and a small farmer's market in Provo. (We saw peppadews, beans, and fresh pigeon peas on a recent visit.) Demonstration plots have shown the productive potential of North Caicos soil: Growing in abundance are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cabbages, fruits (papayas, mangoes, bananas, melons), even herbs. And retailers are responding: In 2010, Gemma Handy in the Turks and Caicos Weekly News reported that the IGA Graceway supermarket in Provo was buying up spectacular okra grown by septuagenarian farmer Emanuel Misick on his 20-acre Green Acre Farm in Bottle Creek.

General Resources for Responsible Travel

The following websites provide valuable wide-ranging information on sustainable travel.

  • Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices, and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.
  • Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Cool Climate (http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu) provide info on "carbon offsetting," or offsetting the greenhouse gas emitted during flights.
  • Greenhotels (www.greenhotels.com) recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Environmentally Friendly Hotels (www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com) offers more green accommodation ratings.
  • Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a list of questions to help you determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program. For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.