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Building on the ruins.

Venezuela's tiny Cubagua Island could soon mushroom into one of the Caribbean's biggest resorts if a consortium of Venezuelan and overseas developers gets its way.

At present, the island is nothing but a nine-square-mile spit of sand just south of the much larger Isla Margarita, which along with a third island, Coche, make up the state of Nueva Esparta. Both Cubagua and Coche have been targeted for massive development over the next few years.

"The political consensus is to develop the island in a way that won't affect the environment," promised Venezuelan congressman Julio Cesar Moreno, who led foreign investors on a recent tour of Cubagua.

Accompanying him was Tourism Minister Vladimir Gessen, who says that, once the projects are approved by a special commission appointed by President Carlos Andres Perez and completed, Cubagua and Coche will provide "centers of peace and tranquility" for tourists wanting to get away from it all.

That is hardly the impression one gets, however, by talking to developers and studying blueprints of the two future mega-resorts.

For starters, Cubagua, whose current population totals 28 fishermen and their families, will be turned into a 8,000-room hotel resort, including one five-star hotel with 1,500 luxury rooms alone. In addition, the project calls for the planting of trees on 25 percent of the island's surface, as well as the construction of two ports, two aquariums, a highway system, a shopping mall, a nautical club, two 18-hole golf courses, a sewage system and a water desalination. plant.

In the few acres remaining, developers hope to locate a plastic, metal and glass recycling plant, not to mention a health spa, a marine investigations center and a small base for the Venezuelan Air Force.

Also planned is a museum dedicated to the history of Nueva Cadiz, which was built by Spanish colonizers in the early 1500s and disappeared shortly after. The ancient city is to be reconstructed using records squirreled away in archives somewhere in Spain.

All told, the government estimates that the development of Cubagua will take 10 years and cost upwards of $5 billion. That would easily make it among the most expensive resorts in Caribbean history.

"I think this is going to increase the flow of tourism to the Caribbean without competing with other islands," Gessen said in a recent interview at his thirty-seventh floor Caracas office. "Six years ago, nobody went to Aruba. Today, it's a popular tourist destination, yet it hasn't taken any tourists away from Venezuela."

Among the developers behind the Cubagua project are the Enrique Delfino Group, which built the 56-story Parque Central twin towers in Caracas, as well as investors from the United States, Japan, Germany, Holland, France, Italy and Malaysia. Architect Humberto Torres, Chief of Desarollos Turisticos Cubagua CA says his company's development of Cubagua will halt a pattern of erosion that washes 40 tons per year of the island's soil into the Caribbean.

But not everybody is thrilled with turning Cubagua into another Aruba. Chief among the project's detractors is the John Boulton Foundation, an influential philanthropic organization established 160 years ago to preserve Venezuelan culture. In 1961, the group commissioned Enrique Otte's 610-page treatise, "Las Perlas del Caribe: Nueva Cadiz de Cubagua," which finally appeared in 1977, along with an introduction by foundation president Alfredo Boulton.

"I'm not against whatever they're planning in Cubagua, I just think they should look somewhere else," Boulton recently remarked. "If they want to make an investment, let them make it in Margarita or Coche. Historically, Cubagua is for us a very important place."

In fact, heavy development is in the works for Coche, whose 8,000 inhabitants are mostly unemployed and poor. According to government officials, at least three five-star hotels will be erected on the island. Among them is the $6 million Hotel Isla del Coche, to be built by an offshore U.S. company based in Aruba and managed by another firm headquartered in the Dominican Republic.

"Coche has adequate water supplies, electricity, very nice beaches and is close to the [Venezuelan] mainland," said Alejandro Arreazo, a Caracas attorney representing the Aruba firm. "Also, compared with other Caribbean islands, we are very cheap."

Arreazo said regular ferry service would be offered between Coche and nearby Margarita Island, and that the government has approved a project to enlarge the runway of Coche's small airport from 1,200 to 1,800 meters in order to accommodate commercial aircraft.

In contrast, no commercial airport will be built on Cubagua. Private vehicles will not even be allowed on the island. Visitors will arrive and depart only on ferries connected to Margarita and possibly the Venezuelan mainland. The only people who may stay on Cubagua permanently will be hotel employees and Cubagua's original 28 families, who will be given new housing on the island.

In 1989, the country had just 411,000 tourists-less than Barbados, Jamaica or St. Maarten, and only a fraction of the millions that visited the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Gessen predicted that these developments will boost Venezuela's tourism potential which has barely been taped. According to the Minister "this project will generate 30,000 direct and 45,000 indirect jobs," and could provide tens of millions of dollars in foreign exchange.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:resort development of Cubagua Island off Venezuela's Eastern Caribbean coast
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1991
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