The Struggle to Save Maho Bay - the World’s First Eco-Resort

 @MarkJohansonIBT
on June 24 2011 5:14 PM

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The view from Maho Bay's dinner pavilion (FLICKR/kaymohusband)

In 1976, there was no such thing as ecotourism, and Being Green was just a song by Kermit the Frog.  The sustainable living movement was only in its early stages when a small cluster of tent-cottages peeked out of the brush on the tiny Caribbean island of St. John.

Maho Bay Camps in the U.S. Virgin Islands was the pioneer in eco-tourism, opening up its mesh and wood doors in 1976 with a non-renewable 36-year lease.

35 years later, the day they've been dreading is fast approaching.

The eco-resort was created by New Yorker Stanley Selengut after he came to a deal with one of the landowners of the property, which sits on the edge of the Virgin Islands National Park on St John. There, he was faced with the challenge of developing an economically viable resort facility compatible with National Park mandates. The project grew into the 114-unit Maho Bay Camps, which was ostensibly the world's first eco-resort. On land adjacent to Maho Bay Camps, Selengut later developed the Harmony Studios, luxury units formed from recycled building materials and energized by photovoltaic (solar) cells.

Selengut created Maho Bay back before the words green and eco-friendly became a part of the vernacular. Eco-resorts didn't exist - they didn't have labels for what he was doing.

35 years later, just as the ecotourism movement reaches its apex, Maho Bay Camps' lease is set to expire. On July 31, 2012, Selengut's lease on the land is up. Worse, he's been refused the extension that he was anxiously awaiting.

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Maho Bay's tent cottages (windhamphoto.com)

In September 2007, The Trust for Public Land (TPL) purchased and permanently protected the majority of a 419-acre site known as Estate Maho Bay, located in the heart of St. John. Ultimately, the property will be added to Virgin Islands National Park, making it the largest preservation project on St. John since the national park was created through a gift from Laurence Rockefeller in 1956.

Soon after, TPL took interest in the resort's privately owned property and set up a fund to save Maho Bay.  However, talks between the land owners and TPL have since faltered as TPL is only legally permitted to buy the land at fair market value.

That's when we knew everything was coming to an end, said Maho Bay Camps' general manager Scott Drennan.

The land is on the market for 23 million dollars and no further negotiations will take place.

If we could just get 23 million people to donate a dollar each, joked Drennan, then we'd be fine!

There is a silver lining. Should the property remain unsold by April 30, 2012, the lease will automatically renew for one year.  However, they won't know until that date if operations can resume and, while this sounds hopeful, it's a double edge sword for the live-in staff who must deal with the uncertainty of the resort's closure, a loss of job, and a loss of housing. For now, they are planning to close their doors effective June 1, 2012 and have ceased taking reservations past May 31, 2011.

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The calm waters at Little Maho Beach (FLICKR/JeremyZilar)

Drennan remarked that he is fielding a lot of emails from upset and concerned guests.

It's really sad, he said. This is a very special part of every year in some of our guest's lives. There's just nothing to replace it. People are asking, 'Well, now what?' I've been on island for six years myself and Maho has been a large part of that. I'm asking the same thing.

One guest took matters into her own hands, starting the Facebook page Save Maho Bay Camps - A Guest-Led Ecotourism Preservation Effort.

Julia Glad is from Madison, Wisconsin where she works for an organization dedicated to the stewardship of the National Trails System. She's been inspired by many success stories across the United States in which concerned citizens protected land through dedication and hard work. She thinks Maho Bay is no different.

I am convinced that the unique eco-experience and ecotourism legacy Maho offers is compelling enough to find and justify a means to continue Maho Bay Camps, Glad said.

Glad has visited Maho Bay since she was six.

I fell asleep to the gentle sea breezes through the screen of my cottage over the water, she recalled. I swam in Maho Bay in the moonlight with the photo-phosphorescent plankton glowing with every splash.

Glad argued that Maho Bay needs to be protected not just for the beauty of the land, but also to honor its heritage as a founding member of the ecotourism movement. 

How much does the stupendous growth of the green building industry owe to Maho Bay for exposing so many potential clients to the beauty and practicality of green methods and materials, she argued. How much has the ecotourism community grown and profited based on guests who first experienced Maho Bay's idyllic natural surroundings? Much of what has become a strong and vibrant set of interconnected movements can be traced to this and other early 'green' pioneers.

So what will happen on June 1, 2012 if the eco-resort shuts its doors?

We pack up and leave, said Drennan.  All improvements - anything bolted down stays on the land.

The eco-resort is looking for an off-property spot to relocate its famous Trash to Treasures Art Center, where the resort's trash is recycled into craft items and fine art.  The center features a Clay Studio, Textiles Department, Art Gallery, and a Glass Studio that is famous for its nightly demonstrations on how to transform empty beer and wine bottles into works of art.

Maho Bay does have a sister property on the southeast side of the island. The smaller Estate Concordia opened in 1994 and boasts a slightly more upscale environment than its predecessor.  Selengut, perhaps in anticipation of what may happen at Maho Bay, purchased this land outright.

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Maho Bay's Trash to Treasures Glass Studio (FLICKR/50%chanceofrain)

With the very real odds that this may be Maho Bay Camps' last year in operation, the staff is encouraging all former guests to come back and say their goodbyes.

For many of the thousands of guests, myself included, this is a place that has a special spot in our memories - and our regular travel itineraries, said Glad. The development of the Maho Bay land as anything other than an ecotourism destination open to the public as it is now would be a senseless and tragic loss.

It's not easy being green, yet Maho Bay Camps found a way to make sustainable tourism cool and viable. The resort pioneered new techniques and exposed countless generations to a low-impact way of life. They've had a good run. Perhaps, it's time to pass the torch. Or maybe, just maybe, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

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