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Sands of Time

Turning Back the Sands of Time

Since the 1950s, images of crystal blue waters along sandy white beaches fringed with palm trees have been marketed as products that attract visitors to the Caribbean. Now, approximately 40 million people visit the Caribbean each year, and in 2010, a million of those people visited the BVI, according to statistics from the World Tourism Organization and the Development Planning Unit, respectively. While it’s clear that our economy and the rest of the region heavily depend on tourism, tourism itself threatens the very products that attract visitors to the islands in the first place. The race to bring in and accommodate more and more people has developed into competition among island nations to create bigger and better amenities than their neighbouring islands. People are forgetting these sandy products are also the natural resources that historically helped change the economy and provided many islands the opportunity to raise their standard of living.


The first tourism amenity that brought people to the BVI to see and experience what is now marketed as Nature’s Little Secrets was the first cruise ship in 1960 followed by the opening of Laurance Rockefeller’s Little Dix Bay Resort in 1964 and, in 1969, the first yacht charter company opened. Fast forward to 2012, and the BVI has become one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean and has a range of amenities to bring in, accommodate and entertain people visiting the territory.

If the natural resources—or the products—are what made the Virgin Islands a successful tourist destination in the first place, what would happen if the natural resources just disappeared one day? How do we even begin to identify a problem when some of us weren’t even around in the 1950s to compare the past with the present?

The stories about vast amounts of fish caught years ago are verbally passed down from generation to generation. Remnant skeletons of massive coral reef structures are still evident but we may never really know how much once existed for some of these resources. However, with a few photos and a little modern technology, beaches are one resource we can actually identify whether there is a problem or not.

If you take old aerial photos and stick them into a powerful mapping programme called Geographic Information Systems (or GIS to the techies), you can literally turn back time to see how specific areas once looked; add photos from different years, and you can quantify what has been lost. Since sand shifts seasonally and from year to year due to altering wind and wave patterns, changes are detected by measuring the gain or loss of the vegetation line found behind a beach. The vegetation line is considered to be more stable than sand and is one of the most common indicators in coastal sciences used to detect shoreline change.

Using this same technique, extensive research on coastal change over time in the BVI has revealed a few facts. First, vegetation on beaches has actually advanced seaward where little to no development has occurred. This greatly improves a beach’s resiliency to future storms, swell and sea level rise. Second, wide swaths of vegetation between farmland and the beach seen on older aerial photos indicate a local tradition not commonly practiced today. Land was naturally “buffered” from the sea by vegetation, today it is removed for more space on the beach. Third, despite 12 hurricanes which have passed the BVI within 100km since 1953 (3 of which passed directly over the BVI); beaches that have not been mined eventually recover, even though it may take a few years. This is because storms can move sand offshore until favourable wind and waves bring the sand back. However, there is only a limited supply of sand and if it has been physically removed out of this complex system, the beach may never recover.


Only a few beaches in the BVI, with the exception of Anegada, show such drastic changes over time as Josiah’s Bay. Comparing the gain or loss of vegetation on other beaches along the north shore of Tortola, this particular beach has shown the greatest loss of both sand and vegetation. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so it doesn’t take a scientist to see how this resource has changed over the years.

But how much has the dramatic loss of both vegetation and sand from this particular beach affected tourism today? For some people, probably not by much since no major hotels exist on this particular beach, and strong wave conditions deter large number of visitors. Sand mined from this beach may have even been used to build the very hotels and villas our visitors stay. But for the property owners in Josiah’s Bay or even the small number of leatherbacks that nest on Josiah’s, the loss of this resource means a loss of property and loss of biodiversity. It’s one of many beaches but maybe this is the first clear indicator that we are putting more into tourism than protecting our products, the same products that provided us with the wealth we have today.


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