A Sustainable Approach to Marina Development
by Esteban L. Biondi
Caribbean marinas can benefit from including environmental and social factors to achieve sustainability.
Little known to many, there is an approach to marina development that also has social and environmental sustainability, rather than only profitability, as primary objectives.
The justification for focusing also on environmental and social factors is based on strong business principles of creating value, taking seriously the fundamentals of guest experience. It also recognizes that most people want to do the “right thing”, and this results in environmental and social benefits that go beyond what regulation-only can achieve.
This approach makes the case to investors that a marina project has more value if, in addition to being built to withstand the forces of nature and to meet return-on-investment goals, it enhances the natural environment and benefits the local community. These latter qualities may be a choice for a private investor, but they are the responsibility of government authorities to achieve.
With environmentally and socially beneficial marinas, it may be easier to make the case for sustainable yachting destinations. Sailing cruisers in the Caribbean can use this concept as the catalyst for a conversation about their role in the social and environmental sustainability of the destinations they visit.
The Business Case: ‘experience’ or ‘Experience’
In 1999, a book by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore called The Experience Economy laid out the business case for the economic value of memorable experiences. The authors emphasize that the human desire for “Experiences” that are authentic, profound and touching has economic value. This understanding of what “Experience” (with capital “E”) means is the definition used here. This must be clarified because the word “experience” is also used to describe sophisticated services and programmed interactions in artificial settings (like a theme park, a cruise ship or a store).
For example, while National Parks were not created because of the economic value of the Experiences, any visitor to a protected natural area can perceive its value and justify its existence. I know that one of my most memorable experiences as a tourist was talking to a shopkeeper (and naturalist-historian) in Patagonia. Luxury ecolodges and some ecotourism features that are becoming mainstream also demonstrate the economic value of nature and culture. But sailing cruisers don’t need so many words to explain what “Experience” is: that is what they usually look for in destinations.
In the marina industry, sophisticated marina operators already address exclusivity, privacy and personalisation to improve guest “experience”. Sometimes this is delivered by concierge services. More traditionally, this has also been achieved by creating the right ambiance.
However, the addition of authenticity is what makes for a truly memorable experience. In order to achieve this, it is important to embrace the local community. Local people — with their culture, history, stories, traditions and sensibility for the land and the living environment — are best able to offer authentic experiences to visitors. Ultimately, people, more than landscapes or amenities, offer the best opportunities for deep and transformational experiences.
As with National Parks, many yachting destinations need to remain natural and accessible, but other need infrastructure. Can marinas be built to support these ideas? This article explores two parallel and interconnected pathways to memorable and valuable Experiences in sustainable marinas: environmental and social.
Environmental Impacts: Sometimes Good
Marinas carry a stigma among the general public of “always” causing negative impacts. While it is accurate to portray marina developments in pristine environments as a cause for potentially negative impacts (although these may be avoided, minimized and mitigated by following documented best practices for design and construction), some degraded environments can actually be improved by marina works. Additionally, significant value can be achieved with a proactive “environmental design” approach.
There are many examples in the Caribbean where marina development has caused positive environmental impacts, and there are still other untapped opportunities. Port Louis Marina in Grenada arguably cleaned up considerably its area of influence in St. George’s Lagoon. The proposed development of a new marina in San Andrés, Colombia has the potential to clean up and organize its waterfront. The long overdue environmental restoration of Ashton Lagoon on Union Island in the Grenadines — which is needed to clean up the damage left by a failed marina project and also to address contamination by haphazard land development — may still include some type of boating infrastructure. When it relates to water quality, if a marina developer is offered a polluted waterfront site and some tools to deal with the causes, you can bet that the resulting marina will have cleaner water: it is in their best interest.
Good environmental regulations for development and operation of marinas are needed, but enforcement typically has limitations.
Regulations require environmental impact studies, which must identify all negative environmental impacts of a proposed marina project. The intent of the process is generally to avoid if feasible, minimize as much as possible, and mitigate as required, those impacts. But the proposed environmental design approach goes beyond regulations. However, this approach justifies sustainability independently of the regulatory requirements. You can turn around the conversation within the marina development team: Don’t do what you “can” (or can get away with by negotiating with your regulators), but design incorporating natural features that add the most value to the project.
Environmentally Sustainable Marinas
Proactive environmental design means including natural features as part of the marina project. They are design elements that add value to the aesthetics and can reduce costs, as much as they provide benefits of habitat creation and protection of native or threatened vegetation.
Solutions may include the use of sloped vegetated shorelines or the creation of landscaped stormwater retention and filtering areas around the basin. Natural elements are (or can be designed to be) beautiful landscape features, public boardwalks, spaces for active or passive recreation, educational opportunities, etcetera. Habitat creation and protection of ecological functions are key environmental considerations, but good environmental design also results in enhancing a sense of place that is authentic and true to the surrounding natural environment.
Interesting opportunities for environmental design can be found when they reduce costs of fill, dredging and shoreline structures. Setting aside waterfront areas as environmental features, either by keeping them undisturbed or by recreating a living shoreline, reduces the cost of new construction. Where fill is expensive, creating an intertidal flat with non-structural material is more cost-effective than reclaiming to a safe construction elevation. Small artificial offshore islands with intertidal shorelines, lagoons and rocky shorelines can be built with dredge material use and used for wave protection. Creating a zone along the waterfront with varying elevations and features can be used as part of a sea-level-rise adaptation strategy. And then, in addition to good design, there is the goodwill developers can get with government regulators.
In particular, there are many examples that demonstrate that mangroves and marinas do not need to be opposites. It is true that some developers and engineers want to maximize space usage and always use vertical-wall shorelines. But mangroves can be a nice (and cheap) landscape feature for marina edges. There are many examples (old and new) of marinas built adjacent to mangroves or incorporating newly planted mangrove vegetation as part of the marina shoreline design. Jupiter Yacht Club in Florida is built adjacent to a healthy and ecologically functional mangrove forest, and Harborside incorporated mangroves to the shoreline design of the public waterfront promenade.
Socially Sustainable Marinas
Arguably, a planning approach aimed at developing marinas rooted in deep experiential meaning and authenticity would allow for win-win scenarios by creating a stage where local community members participate directly in the business opportunities generated by the project. By following adapted sustainable tourism principles, net positive impacts can be achieved by offering direct economic, social, and cultural benefits to the local community. This approach in return offers an enormous potential to enhance the guest experience.
While the local community has the best human resources to deliver authentic guest Experiences, opportunities are often difficult to realize because the local population is often not prepared to deliver the required quality of services. This not a problem exclusive to the Caribbean, but very common in most developing countries and yachting destinations around the world. The good news is that there are examples in Latin America and the Caribbean of groups actively working towards solutions. In many cases, these
organizations are not specific to marina operations, but some work has been focused specifically on coastal communities of fishermen. For example, the resort and marina developer in El Salvador who did not build the marina yet but has already implemented a “sea-to-table” program with the local fishermen. The following case studies were collected for a personal research project:
• PUERTO LOS CABOS, MEXICO
Puerto Los Cabos (PLC) is a large coastal tourism development project in San José del Cabo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. The project, which includes a 500-boat marina, was developed around a small fishing village called La Playita.
The marina at PLC includes a basin dedicated to the local fishermen, which was agreed with the locals to offset the project’s impacts. The fishermen’s village is operated by local fishermen’s cooperatives, which existed prior to the project and were involved in the pre-development agreements with the developer. Fishing charters for tourists operated by the local cooperatives have been very successful, with high levels of satisfaction by visiting sportfishermen reported. The fishermen’s village at PLC is an extremely significant marina investment in community-oriented infrastructure within a resort project.
• PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
The developer of Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, has a foundation that spearheaded a long-term collaborative effort that seeks to achieve sustainable integrated coastal management in the region.
In addition to training and hiring individual local fishermen for a variety of marine environmental programs (coral nurseries, sustainable fisheries, etcetera), the foundation provided training to fishermen to target the invasive lionfish. Creating a market for lionfish had been identified as a viable way to control the rapidly expanding populations of this exotic species that degrades the reef ecology. The local fishermen were paid for their catch and the fish is highlighted on the menu of the resort restaurant.
Most interesting, the foundation also implemented a supplementary program that trained the wives of the fishermen in lionfish taxidermy. Using this technique, the fish is dissected and mounted as a souvenir, which is available for sale at the resort and at local handicraft shops. Each souvenir includes a tag with a short description of the lionfish, stating that a local fisherman caught it and that their family members handcrafted it into a souvenir.
The combined programs of restaurant signature dish and souvenirs resulted in multiple benefits including fishermen’s income from a sustainable fishery, additional income directed to the women in the household, and a higher volume and steadiness of catch of the invasive fish, resulting in reduction of the population of lionfish on the reef.
• RODNEY BAY MARINA, ST. LUCIA
There are examples that also demonstrate that vision, passion and ingenuity get results. A marina does not have to be built in a certain way and you don’t need a large foundation to develop a plan as the only ways to get results, if you have the right people in the right place.
Rodney Bay is a well-known marina in the Eastern Caribbean. Formerly recognized as a major regional facility for sailboats, it has been redeveloped to include megayacht facilities as well. Rodney Bay Marina has partnered with St. Lucia’s Ministry of Agriculture to offer local farmers direct access to marina guests at the weekly Farmers Market at Rodney Bay. This was an initiative of the marina management, who identified the opportunity through their local informal communication channels, and obtained the agreement from the government and facility ownership.
Vendors travel from some of the poorest parts of the country to sell their goods, which include fresh fruits and vegetables, juices, coconut oil, cocoa, herbs and spices, and more. Not only does this encourage marina clients to purchase direct from the farmers, but it has also encouraged residents around the facility to visit the marina for their weekly fruit and vegetable shopping. Other businesses inside the marina benefit from the extra foot traffic through the facility.
I think that the social sustainability of yachting destinations is relevant to the Caribbean, even if I started developing these thoughts in the last century studying cruise destinations for Patagonia! Over the years, I have applied this way of thinking to marina projects throughout Latin America, in the Middle East and China and there are always values to be uncovered.
Environmental sustainability principles apply to marina developers building on mangroves as well as to cruisers’ bilge discharges. Everyone involved in a yachting destination should contribute to improve water quality and the environment in general.
Sustainable marina design is desirable — necessary at best — but clearly an insufficient condition. The most important step towards social sustainability, however, is not how you build a marina, even if I think that the design approach can make a difference. The key to achieving any success towards social sustainability is the dialogue with the local community, having clear objectives, and being thorough, patient and resourceful in the implementation. In some cases, this is a work of foundations supported by economic groups and real estate developers. However, as shown by the example of Rodney Bay Marina (and which I am sure also exists in many other places), the ideas of a couple of senior marina staff can make a huge difference.
Informally organized cruisers or megayacht crews, who have already achieved successes with philanthropic endeavors in destination communities, can also play a role. Ultimately, personal commitment and passion are the drivers and bottom-up opportunities are all around you.
The bottom line is that genuine community involvement and environmental protection lead to the most authentic Caribbean marina experience — and therein lies real sustainability, including economic success.
Esteban L. Biondi is Associate Principal at Applied Technology & Management, an engineering and environmental consulting company with a group specialized in comprehensive consulting services for marina projects. He has directed over 100 studies for marinas in Latin America, the Caribbean, US, Middle East and China. He has written papers and articles about social sustainability and guest experience, environmental design, and climate change adaptation applied to marinas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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