You can credit -- or blame -- the storm-wary cruise ship captain some 20 years ago for Roatan's boom.
The story goes that the port of call wasn't even on his cruise line's itinerary but when passengers were surveyed after the voyage ended, they kept highlighting the emergency stop on that sleepy Caribbean island just off the coast of Honduras. From that inadvertent discovery Roatan has gone from hidden dive Mecca to travel hotspot.
Today, up to four mammoth cruise ships will steam in on a typical winter's day and international airlines continue to add flights -- including Cayman Airways in January -- to the island's quickly expanding airport.
And while recent numbers are not available, it's estimated at least 1.3 million visitors breached the island's palm-fringed shores or swam its azure waters last year, compared to 100,000 in 2000 and just 900 in 1970.
In truth, this explosion was probably inevitable. From its pristine rainforest -- half of it remains untouched -- to spectacular reefs and sun-soaked beaches, Roatan was an accident waiting to happen. And while long-time residents bemoan the loss of privacy, they can't dispute the prosperity: Tourism -- nearly all of that coming from Roatan -- represents 7% of Honduras' GDP, money which is being reinvested in badly needed infrastructure.
History is filled with cautionary tales about tourist fads which is why the island adheres to a master plan that stresses sustainability and authenticity.
Whereas coral reefs around the world are dying, Roatan's are surviving -- if not thriving -- thanks largely to industrial infancy, environmental education and efforts of the Roatan Marine Park, a grassroots effort charged with protecting its most precious commodity.
Whereas drug violence haunts mainland Honduras, crime bosses have apparently been warned that Roatan is out of bounds.
Whereas the boom has strained its existing resources, laid-back Central American character remains, from earnest friendliness to Latin culture.
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