Little Corn Island shows signs of growth

This quiet and rustic Caribbean escape is starting to see a new type of tourism development. But will progress change Little Corn Island’s chilled-out vibe?

LITTLE CORN ISLAND—On the northern coast of Little Corn Island, a new boutique resort is expected to open within the next few months. The Yemaya Island Retreat will feature 16 luxury cabins, each equipped with hot running water, 24-hour electricity, verandas that overlook the beach, Jacuzzis and an “organic spa.” The resort will also boast fine dining in its restaurant and bar.

Yemaya will be in a class of its own on Little Corn; no other accommodation is as modern or luxurious. Set just meters away from a pristine, secluded beach lined by swaying palm trees, the cabins are a typical postcard image of the luxury Caribbean getaways advertised on TV.

Under Construction: Yemaya resort and spa (photo/ David Hutt)

But Little Corn Island has never had a rich-and-famous tourism vibe. Its ethos is chill. Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the island. And even if they were, there would be no where to drive them; most roads on the island are tramped-dirt footpaths. Tourists on the island come to relax on empty beaches, dive and snorkel. They are what you might describe as “hippies,” “beach bums,” divers, or young couples hiding from civilization for a week-long affordable and romantic getaway.

But as word gets out about this corner of the Caribbean, Little Corn has also become an island in transition. A decade ago, tourists were extremely rare in these parts. But in recent years, the nascent tourism industry has been thriving. New hotels, hostels and eco-resorts have been built around the island. The main drag through the village contains several dive shops, an Italian restaurant and a Gringo bar. There is a concrete jetty to welcome tourists who arrive on one of two daily boats from nearby Big Corn Island.

One step further

The Yemaya spa, the newest addition to Little Corn Island’s expanding tourism industry, will bring further change to the island. Yemaya is expected to charge upwards of $400 a night, or nearly 10 times more than many of the local island cabinas that rent for $40 a night.

Little Corn Island has many unspoiled beaches (photo/ John Morgan)

Existing businesses wonder what the resort will mean for the island’s laidback tourism vibe.

 “At that price, it will definitely mean a change in clientele,” says the owner of Debedo’s, an eco-resort located nearby on the north side of the island.

Garry Lesesne, the project manager of Yemaya and director of Corn Island Consulting, agrees that a new type of tourist will come to the island, but says that’s a good thing.

“Our rates will definitely attract a new clientele to the island. This benefits all business owners on the island as a result of tourists with a higher per capita potential,” Lesesne told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Visitors will have more spending potential in restaurants and with small vendor purchases.”

According to Lesesne, full-time residents of Little Corn Island, especially those who make a living from tourism, are “very supportive” of the project and optimistic about its promise to help the local economy. He says the locals have seen that the resort will bring “benefits of employment, social contributions through schools, health care and churches.”

Plus, Lesesne adds, the resort will play “a leading role in sustainable development” and “help place the corn islands in a higher tourism category.”

Indeed, some of the social contributions can already be felt, even before the hotel opens. The north side of the island now has electricity thanks to the resort development.

Many locals are optimistic that more positive changes will come.

Jimmy, a part-time fisherman who earns additional income by taking tourists out snorkeling on his boat, says he is happy because the development will bring rich travelers to the island, creating more jobs for the local economy. Asked if he thinks the resort will spoil the island’s rustic aesthetics, Jimmy shrugs his shoulders indifferently.

A local dive shop owner is also excited about the prospect of wealthier tourists visiting the island. He rubbed his hands with glee and snapped his fingers for emphasis when asked what he thought about the new resort moving in.

Progress too far?

As the tourism industry grows in Little Corn Island, so too does its international reputation.

Most development on the island is discreet. Pictured: Derek’s Place (photo/ John Morgan)

“Over the last two decades, a slowly growing number of intrepid American, European and Israeli travelers have found their way to these Creole-speaking islands, which are free from the designer boutiques and sprawling resorts that are ubiquitous in the Caribbean,” reads a travel article published last November in the New York Times.

The Yemaya resort could start to change that. Some are concerned that it will just be the first of more luxury resorts to follow, driving up land prices and increasing the cost of living for the locals.

There are already signs the forthcoming hotel is affecting prices on the island. “Other locally owned hotels have increased their nightly rates as a result of our proposed rates,” Lesesne says.

Efforts to expand the airport on Big Corn Island could also facilitate the arrival of wealthier tourists—a move some fret might displace the backpacking eco-resorts. The owner of an eco-hotel, who wished to remain unidentified, said when he saw construction begin on the Yemaya project, his first thought was to sell his property and move on for fear that the new resort will mark the beginning of drastic change to the island.  

Others have been warning of change for years. In 2010, then-mayor Alex Dixon, of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), warned of such large-scale constructions on the islands. “Tourism is an alternative to the traditional sources of employment, but not the solution,” he said. “We want to develop small-scale projects, with the involvement of local people, that complements their other activities and not just have large hotels and big capital take over.”

Dixon lost reelection to the Sandinista candidate Cleveland Webster, who Lesesne says has been very helpful “offering both logistical support and guidance.”

As Little Corn Island experiences the growing pains of development, islanders will be challenged to make sure the rising tide of tourism lifts all boats, and doesn’t flood their tropical paradise in the process.

  • de Las Sombras

    I HOPE Little Corn does a MUCH better job of guarding and protecting their marine in/near-shore ecosystems than they did over on Big Corn… which is a heart-wrenching disaster!

    • Jon

      So true, this pristine island paradise may go the way of Costa Rica and lose the Eco tourist that it looked for to sustain it. The trash and distruction of habitat is gut wrenching.

  • Luis

    It is unspoiled because you can’t get there. Try buying an airline ticket and hoping that the plane takes off.

    • Jon

      Plane ticket? Not a chance. That is why it is still a paradise, people that have no respect for nature or the environment will go just because they can say they have the means and money.

  • http://@mymaureen MauPau

    I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Little Corn Island a few years ago and I’m hoping this new development doesn’t hurt nature and the ecosystem there. Let’s hope the development is made with great consideration for trash and sewer disposal. The article didn’t mention if the resort is eco-friendly or even green.

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  • chalespinosa

    Will little corn island eco-system be able to sustain the increased population & tourism growth. Jared Diamond book Collapse tells the story of how island like little corn island were destroyed by overpopularion & uncontrolled growth. This Nica jewel should be declared by govt as a Natural Santuary and enforce laws to stop indiscreminant exploitation of island

  • http://www.elportonverde.com Mike @ Farmstay El Porton Verde

    Don Chale I tend to agree with you on this one…

    We hosted the young couple who will be leading this resort’s kitchen as the head chefs. They are very excited at the prospect of working at a brand-new upscale resort, but they really had no idea as to what they would find at Yemaya. We’ll find out in a month or so when we get a first-person report of the local situation on lovely Little Corn Island.

    I am interested to find out if this will work. The logistics alone on getting goods to Little Corn makes the prospect of a very demanding clientele and little to no leeway in having on-hand just what the jetsetter guest is demanding at any given moment gives me pause to think that it will be interesting to see how this plays out, that is for certain!

    Blogged about here: http://www.elportonverde.com/2013/02/20/little-corn-island-shows-signs-of-growth/

  • NicaChica

    Will the visitors to this new luxury resort have to take the local panga to the island? That back breaking ride is not what anyone would expect to have to endure to then pay $400/night! Although that may be to the spa’s advantage….their guests will need recouperative back and neck therapies!

  • Chris good

    Exactly nicachica.

    I’ll bet nowhere in the brochure is a section about breaking 8 ft waves.

    I spend a lot of time on the ocean in tough weather, that 25 miles should not be underestimated.

  • Erik Jota

    “Our rates will definitely attract a new clientele to the island. This benefits all business owners on the island as a result of tourists with a higher per capita potential.”

    Yeah right.

    “Come out of the jacuzzi darling, we’re going to buy a candy bar in that lovely shack down the road.”

  • Kathleen Somers

    We have been to Little Corn twice and it is the most beautiful place in the world just the way it it. I understand progress but a little goes a long way. Hope it doesn’t change much in my traveling lifetime. I pray for the best for those that live there.

  • Ternot MacRenato

    I agree with don Chale. This place should be designated as a Natural Sanctuary. I spent a few days on the island three years ago and I found it perfect just the way it is. The tourism, such as sit is, has not clashed with the native culture or economy. If you want to know what luxurious spas do to the local economy and culture, visit Kahuai and some of the other islands. They have high levels of poverty, drug use and exorbitant home prices. As far as American tourists go, they view the locals as if they were natives in a foreign country. Where do all the millions in tourist revenue go? The majority of native Hawaiians live in poverty or near poverty. May God help Little Corn Island and its native population if this resort goes through.

  • Snowloco

    “…optimistic about its promise to help the local economy.”

    Well, it may provide jobs, which is positive, however, if one reads the website, it’s an all-inclusive resort. This undermines the whole purpose for bringing visitors to the island in the first place. Moreover, it doesn’t grow small businesses on the island. Tourists who have paid for everything in advance – and are accommodated in self sufficient resorts complete with bars, restaurants and entertainment – have little incentive to go anywhere else in the country, hire local guides, or eat in local restaurants. That’s not what Little Corn is about.

    Holidaymakers also use vast quantities of energy and water (significantly more per person than local people), create significant amounts of waste, and some feel that this is a high price to pay for little commercial return of all-inclusives, even if it’s an “eco all-inclusive.”

  • Sharon House

    What a a shame the beautiful eco friendly little corn is about to be destroyed by a large scale hotel.It is amazing this has been approved considering the council give small eco friendly businesses on both islands so much grief when starting there businesses. This would never have been approved on Big Corn Island.Lots of money to bribe I think. How will the electricity supply work? The hotel also has its own boat for guests so they wont need to use the panga. If the council started approving the many small eco friendly projects on both islands the islanders would not have to contend with such a hideous development.

    • capeguy

      I walked along the beach in front of yemaya and its a very nice place made up of small individual casitas. The resort is way on the backside of little corn and it takes an effort to even find the place either by walking along the circumference or cutting through on jungle trails.