The race is on to see who can create the Caribbean's first completely green island. In the running: the Turks and Caicos government, private developer David Skar and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
All have plans in the works – at varying stages – to green up their respective Caribbean isles.
DiCaprio, long a champion of all causes environmental, snatched up his own private island just off the coast of Belize back in 2005: 104-acre Blackadore Caye. According to published reports, the actor envisioned an environmentally sustainable resort, or possibly an entire community, on his private paradise from the start. Development was rumored to have started late last year.
DiCaprio's publicist, Ken Sunshine, declined to comment on the status of the project at the moment, saying there would be more to report in the next few months.
But the other two contenders aren't keeping so mum on their plans. Last month Turks and Caicos announced that it will transform its largely undeveloped Salt Cay Island into the first to be fully environmentally sustainable.
Meanwhile, a private developer behind STAR (Sustainable Terrain and Resources) Island in the Bahamas is staking a similar claim. It's the brainchild of architect/designer David Sklar, who's already made considerable headway and plans to break ground this year.
Both parties are actively grooming their islands for tourism and vying to be the face of the green Caribbean initiative.
"It's a conscious decision and very historic," Turks and Caicos Premier Joseph Misick said. "Once we see what works, we'll spread it to other islands as well."
What works for Salt Cay will be slightly different than for STAR Island, which is privately owned and currently home to no one except those stationed there to build out the new eco-Shangri La.
Just 2.5 square miles, Salt Cay is already home to about 60 to 100 families. This means the Turks and Caicos government has a slightly different challenge: "greening up" Salt Cay for tourism, but not leaving its current residents in the dust.
At the moment there isn't much tourism – or any industry – on Salt Cay. "Time has stood still," as Misick described it. For about 300 years, the island's primary focus was also its namesake: the production of salt from brine. But soon that focus will switch to the courting of tourism. Green tourism.
"Going green is more expensive, but in the long run it's better," Misick said. "We want to lead the way and show with Salt Cay that you can develop and be environmentally sustainable."
Plans are in the works for two new resort hotels and an 18-hole golf course – all of which will run according to the new green energy standards. Misick expects the $500 million project to finish in the next three to four years.
As for Salt Cay's current citizens, Misick says they will benefit from the switch to green as much as the future tourists – especially with the Turks and Caicos government's subsidizing the conversion of all homes to the new alternative energy source and even foot the power bill for a brief transitional period.
While the government has not yet decided exactly what that source will be, Misick says it will likely be either wind or solar power generated from an energy park to be built on the island. All cars will run on electric or hybrid power as well.
Meanwhile, other Caribbean governments are watching closely. The 10th Annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development is taking place this month, hosted by Turks and Caicos and the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Starting April 28, travel industry insiders will converge on the Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort & Spa – a Green Globe Certified hotel – to help each other up the learning curve of green tourism.
And according to designer David Sklar, that curve is a steep one.
"The learning curve is so huge, and there's so much technology that needs to be quantified and researched," he said. "We don't want to see everyone going through the same learning curve that we did. We're all about sharing."
When Sklar first bought STAR Island, he didn't have a plan on how to develop it. Midway into researching the massive cost of setting up power lines and traditional infrastructure so remotely, the idea came to him while watching the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
"I thought, 'Why can't I run a whole house on a battery? Or a whole community, and have it be truly carbon neutral?'" he said. "As an architect, I love problem solving."
And so the idea for STAR Island was born.
Sklar couldn't find an existing model for his vision – one that intelligently combines the gamut of green technologies like solar, wind, biofuel and biomass. So he developed his own.
Like the Turks and Caicos, his main goal is to show it can be done.
"It's all about sustainability without sacrifice," he said. "I knew I needed to integrate these technologies into the buildings so they don't appear as afterthoughts. In order for the general public to accept this, it has to be unobtrusive and look great. If it looks good, then it's desirable, and people have to want it in order for this to work."
When complete, the island's 35 acres will be split between 45 single family home lots, which will all receive custom green homes, and a conventional boutique hotel with villas and bungalows. But the entire island will be managed as a hotel.
"Anyone can call at two a.m. to request a bottle of wine and a club sandwich," Sklar said. "We're creating a luxurious atmosphere."
As for the nuts and bolts of how he plans to do it, Sklar says the solution is definitely a blend: "We don't want to be married to any one technology. They're all good at different times and instances."
Ultimately, this cocktail of renewable power sources allows every building on the island to generate all or a portion of its own power, and the idea of metering becomes a moot point.
"When your neighbor's not home, they're creating power for you," Sklar explained. "It's like buying a Ferrari that never requires fuel."
With plans to break ground this year and finish the first buildings in 2009, Sklar is poised to beat both Leo and the Turks and Caicos to that green Caribbean "first." But he insists that's not what it's about.
"It's about facing what I believe is reality: People have to learn how to coexist in the natural environment. We don't need to dominate it, or fear it," he said. "It's about learning to respect it. We want to present a balance, and share the concept with anyone else who wants to contribute."