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From Bust to Boom

For the moment, it's the smaller places to stay that are reaping the benefits of Martineau Bay's arrival. The opening of the resort generated free publicity, which, coupled with the navy's exit, helped fuel the current growth in tourism. Boutique hotels such as Hix Island House, Hacienda Tamarindo, and the Inn on the Blue Horizon are all looking to expand; Blue Horizon is adding 14 villas to its waterfront property.

That's the sort of low-impact development James Weis, Blue Horizon's owner, hopes will be in Vieques's future. "You are going to see an appropriate amount of building that will enhance things here," he says. The task now is to manage the change. "I feel partly responsible for making Vieques a tourist destination," adds Weis, who has operated the inn for more than a decade. "I'd hate to see this ruined."

This being a small island, however, rumors abound. Talk in the beach bars is of front companies representing Manhattan real estate moguls and of golf courses sprouting in the heart of the island. Although there is no evidence that any major new developments are planned, the gossip shows how aware locals are that Vieques is caught up in something that could be beyond their control.

And so it's ironic that the one fact Viequenses still resent most could prove to be their salvation in the fight against overdevelopment.

After the navy's exit, a fraction of its land was returned to the community, but most passed to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to be turned into a nature reserve. Activists like Rabin accuse the U.S. government of arranging the transfer to avoid a comprehensive cleanup of the land (Fish & Wildlife lands have a lower standard than land designated for human habitation). Many Viequenses are simply angry that a portion of their island is still controlled by the government. But as long as Fish & Wildlife controls the land, no one can build on it, and developers will be restricted to the same strip of the island that Viequenses live on, land that largely lacks the access to the prime beachfront that all resorts desire.

As locals stew over a victory they feel is only half won, so developers must nonetheless be eyeing some of the last virgin beaches remaining in the Caribbean. Which is why keeping the former navy lands in limbo may not be such a bad thing. The local community has been busy drafting a plan for sustainable development, with guidance from experts at Columbia University, MIT, the United Nations, and others. It envisions low-impact ecotourism as well as the return of land to farmers and small businesses. Yet fostering this type of development will take a great deal of long-term government support and protection, which could someday collapse in the face of developers' lobbying efforts and lucrative bids.

"This is my island," says Osvaldo González, the owner of Vieques Air Link, one of the largest locally owned companies. "If I want to go fishing, I shouldn't have to leave at six p.m. just because Fish & Wildlife says I have to." The people of Vieques, it seems, are still a long way from controlling their own paradise, but for the moment, that's better than having a paradise lost.

MATTHEW YEOMANS last wrote for T+L about Texas's Gulf Coast.

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