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.
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.
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.
“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.