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, an 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 along Grace Bay have slowly creeped up, but most resorts are still under five stories (the new Ritz-Carlton, at 12 stories, may challenge the status quo). Most resorts have 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 Wymara Resort 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%. On Parrot Cay, the construction of a large coconut plantation is part of the resort's drive toward self-sustainability.

Of utmost importance to the nation is the maintenance of its most precious natural resource: the marine environment, which includes the spectacular coral reef system. Although the effects of climate change and recent major hurricanes (and even a fast-growing bacterial disease) continue to threaten the integrity of the reef system, it's still relatively healthy. The waters around East Caicos, which is not land-developed, are particularly pristine. A number of initiatives are underway to maintain the health of the reefs and prevent a "slide towards another spoiled paradise," says Mark Parrish, owner of the local eco-pioneer Big Blue Unlimited. 

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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, Grand Turk, and at the new Sailrock Resort in South Caicos.

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.  

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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.
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  • 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.
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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.