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Private islands, super-yachts and Marine Protected Areas

How Marine Protected Areas have given rise to a surge of profit-seeking Eco-tourism investments.

In a previous op-ed, “Blue-Washing the colonization and militarization of Our Ocean,” I highlighted how Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Monuments, Reserves and National Parks do not actually protect the ocean or marine life but instead preserve colonial power, military bases and corporate investments.

This article focuses on how the interests of the global one percent (the super-rich) are shaping marine conservation policy in order to facilitate economic investment and public-private development, especially in “remote real estate,” yachting and luxury Eco-tourism.

Private Islands

There are many brokers that specialize in selling, leasing and renting remote real estate, or private islands. Even though this is not a new phenomenon, the market for private islands has experienced an economic boom in the past ten years.

The Exuma archipelago, consisting of more than 350 islands, has become a private paradise for celebrities, CEOs and billionaires. Also known as “The Hamptons of the Bahamas,” some of the islands have their own airstrips, docks, mansions and luxury resorts. Beyond the Caribbean, private islands are on sale throughout the Pacific, the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Recently, Hawaiʻi made history when billionaire Larry Ellison purchased Lanaʻi, the sixth largest Hawaiian island, for around $500 million dollars, one of the most expensive island purchases in history.

How do Marine Protected Areas benefit the remote real estate industry? A Marine Protected Area status increases the value of a private island, as well as its privacy.

On the Private Islands Online real estate website, featured islands note their conservation status. The listing for the 27-acre Yadua Island in Fiji, available for leasehold, boasts: “Marine protected area covering all the coral reef surround this island. This is for exclusive unrestricted use of the island owner, and no-one can fish there.”

Another private island in Micronesia, a five-minute boat ride from Pohnpei, made headlines because it can be purchased using Bitcoins. One of the island’s selling points: “Surrounded by a protected national marine park, and just outside a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site, you have world class surfing and diving, and abundant sport fishing.”

Super-Yachts

Besides owning an island, Ellison also owned a 450-foot super-yacht (an island upon itself) named the Rising Sun, which sold for over $300 million. Demand for super-yachts (or mega-yachts) has dramatically risen over the last twenty years. Just last week, Monaco held its annual Yacht trade show (its largest ever), which hosted more than 100 super-yachts and many of the world’s billionaires.

In 2012, billionaire Paul Allen’s 400-foot mega-yacht (the Octopus) became part of a flotilla searching for a missing plane in the waters around Palau. Allen was in Micronesia with his friend, film director James Cameron, who was diving to the deepest point on earth in the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. Over the years, Allen has visited Chuuk and the Marshall Islands to dive in his private submarines that accompany his super-yacht. You guessed it, Allen is also involved in remote real estate).

How do Marine Protected Areas benefit the super-yacht industry? Besides possibly reserving an area of an MPA for exclusive use, the ocean is a yachting playground. Hawaiʻi Governor Abercrombie, when describing Larry Ellison, said: “His passion for nature, particularly the ocean is well known specifically in the realm of America’s Cup sailing.” America’s Cup is the oldest yachting competition in the world.

The yachting industry is already anchored in the Pacific. Every yacht must register before it can operate, and many yacht owners register with countries that offer “flags of convenience” to avoid taxes, labor laws and other regulations. Over the past few years, the Marshall Islands Yacht Registry has become one of the largest and most popular in the world. Flags of convenience have often led to labor and environmental abuses within the yachting, shipping and fishing industries. For example, the offshore Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which exploded in 2010 and devastated the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico, was registered as a “ship” with the Marshall Islands.

Luxury Eco-tourism

Besides yachting and remote real estate, MPAs also protect corporate and private investments in Eco-tourism. According to Sustainability Watch, global Eco-tourism “generates $77 billion in revenue and makes up 5–7 percent of the overall travel and tourism market. It is one of the fastest growing sectors of the industry.” Luxury Eco-tourism is a brand of Eco-tourism that caters to the mega-rich.

Ellison plans to transform Lanaʻi into an Eco-luxury resort island, a “laboratory for sustainability.” It should not come as a surprise that Obama’s expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, authorized last week, came not long after Ellison’s purchase of Lanaʻi.

Leonardo DiCaprio, who recently spoke at the UN Climate Summit and the Our Ocean conference this year, purchased a private island off Belize named Blackadore Caye in 2005. He is teaming up with Four Seasons to “create a five-star luxury resort based on sustainable design and environmental conservation.” Yes, DiCaprio enjoys super-yachts. And yes, Ellison plans to build a 23-acre film studio on Lanaʻi.

How do Marine Protected Areas benefit the Eco-tourism industry? MPAs facilitate public-private partnerships for economic investment and development. This is evident throughout the U.S. National Park Service, whose concessions are owned and operated by private companies, which gross over $1 billion annually. There are more than 500 companies, from food to lodging to adventure sports to retail, that have contracts with the National Parks.

A National Marine Park will boost profits for private diving corporations, such as the Dutch company U Boat Worx, which builds private submersibles (a common toy for billionaires). Additionally, a company that specializes in underwater hotels, such as the Polish company Deep Ocean Technology  will definitely secure new government contracts. Maybe the Russian company Remisudio will build a floating hotel. Considering how much Americans love drones, I would invest in the California based Liquid Robotics, which makes ocean-going drones

In a more ambitious project, the company Dutch Docklands is working with the government of the Maldives (whose country is threatened with rising sea levels) to design floating islands. The “5 Lagoons Project” is 80 million square feet and will include “a private islands project with $10 million villas; a floating 18-hole golf course with an undersea tunnel; a conference complex and hotel; 185 $1-million waterfront homes connected along a flower-shaped quay as well as a separate floating island with homes for residents of Malé, the country’s capital.”

Monaco’s Blue Initiative

In 2010, Prince Albert II of Monaco launched the Monaco Blue Initiative. Members of this initiative include billionaires, CEOs, conservation groups, celebrities and politicians who meet annually to discuss “the possible synergies between the protection of marine ecosystems and socio-economic development.”

In 2013, the Presidents of Palau and Kiribati delivered keynote speeches at the Monaco Blue Initiative, which can be read here. Both leaders specifically pointed to the importance of Eco-tourism development. President Tong described the islands within his country’s MPA as “idle assets” and its “unique marine wilderness” as a “perfect set up for the development of a robust Eco-tourism.” As President Remengesau phrased it: “Our economy is our environment and our environment is our economy.”

The fact that the rise of investments in remote real estate, luxury Eco-tourism and super-yachts coincides with the rise of Marine Protected Areas is not a coincidence. Billionaires, celebrities, and tourism corporations are more willing to invest if there are laws to protect their investments. And even though Eco-tourism is “greener” than other forms of tourism, its development poses many of its own dangers to the people and the environment.

On the surface, National Marine Monuments, Reserves, Parks and Protected Areas appear to protect the ocean and marine biodiversity. However, when we dive below the surface rhetoric of “ocean conservation” and sustainable “blue growth,” we see how capitalism and the interests of the global one percent are shaping environmental and governmental policies. These policies view the ocean not as an ancestor whom we should respect and care for, but as an asset that we should develop and profit from. 

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