Ecotourism is on the rise. Studies are showing that international travelers want pristine, authentic destinations where they can learn something about the culture. More and more travelers want to travel to places where the social and business practices are in harmony with the environment as well. Before coming to Saba, I didn’t know much about eco-friendly practices beyond recycling and a bit about water & energy conservation. I must admit though, it is easy — when living in the United States — to feel like conservation is like being a zillionaire on a budget. I mean, it SEEMS like we’ll never run out of anything sometimes, doesn’t it?

The Land
When vacationing in Saba, you learn more about conservation…of everything. First of all, think about it. We’re on a tiny island next to other slightly bigger islands. Just imagine what it’s like to get things on and off the island. Think for a moment about cars. What if everyone had the typical 2+ cars that Americans have? That would be 3,000 cars for 1,500 residents on 5 square miles with just one main road. Then imagine the American practice of trading in your car after 2 years. Where would all the cars go? Where do you put them? Would it be worth shipping them somewhere after they’ve been taken up and down the mountainous terrain here? How long does it take to fill up 5 square miles with trash, including cars?

The Water
So it’s kind of in your face here. And we’re just getting started. When I arrived, I kept seeing signs that read, “In the land of sun & fun, I do not flush for #1.” Cute, right? I figured maybe it was a plumbing issue or maybe just a bit of water conservation. It goes beyond that. In Saba, the only way to get water is in a big, cement thing called a cistern. Ever heard of that? I hadn’t.

Cisterns are typically made of cement, treated on the inside with a seal. Rainwater is trapped in cisterns through a system of gutters on the cottage and/or a cement water catchment. Cisterns tend to be between 4,000 – 65,000 gallons. Guess who built the bigger cisterns? Usually newer houses have the bigger cisterns, with the biggest being built by American or other expats, used to taking longer showers. See, relying on rainwater means we never know how much water we’ll have. Showers are short here — baths are rare and most cottages don’t have bathtubs at all. The toilet flushing is kept to a minimum.

Even weirder (to me anyway) is that minnows are put into the cistern to keep the water clean — makes sense though. I wondered about the cleanliness of the cistern water for drinking. I was told that the medical students on the island (Saba University of Medicine) were also concerned about the same thing. Rumor has it that they did a test on the cistern water vs. bottled water and found out the same thing other testers found when testing NYC tap water with bottled water — no difference! We have a double water filtration system on our cottage for added peace of mind. By the way, the water tastes very good here!

More About Toilet Flushing
Okay, but it doesn’t stop there. After we bought our cottage, I inquired about details of home ownership. As a person who lives in a rural area in the US, I knew all about septic systems and figured that’s what we’d be dealing with here. Not so. In fact, we have what’s called a cesspit. This is basically a giant, deep hole somewhere in your yard for waste. Yes, you guessed it — no one comes to clean it out. This is the reason that most people put toilet paper in the trash, instead of the toilet. Hmmm, now that takes some getting used to! Actually, it’s really no big deal. The big deal is changing habits and mindsets from what you were used to.

One advantage we have in Saba, a dormant volcano, is the volcanic rock — it’s ultra absorbent, which means the life of the cesspit could be infinite with proper care. One of the tips we’ve gotten is to flush brewer’s yeast down the toilet every so often. It’s not sold on the island, but you can get it from health food stores in St. Maarten or from the US. Brewer’s yeast is nutritional yeast — don’t mix it up for the baking kind that helps bread rise!

Animal & Pest Control Programs
Saba is also very careful about how animals live in harmony with the land. Remember how I talked about farm animals on the island? Goats were everywhere two years ago when we first came for a visit. We loved them — so cute! However, as the populations started to get out of control, Saba started a program to control the goat population. Classes were held and people were encouraged to domesticate goats, which they have. See, goats were starting to tip the scales in a balanced environment — remember there is only so much grass, etc. on 5 square miles. A similar approach was taken for feral cats.

We are lucky to have virtually no mosquitoes in Saba. Part of this is due to mosquito control — standing water is a no-no and there is a person who checks the island to ensure conditions are not conducive to mosquitoes. Saba’s high elevation and constant breeze are most certainly helpful in discouraging mosquitoes.

My Own Contributions
Given that Sabans take a forward-thinking approach to the environment, I wanted to get involved in my own way. At home in the States, I use environmentally friendly, chemical-free cleaners and products. If you know much about household cleaning products, you’ll understand that bleach and other chemicals are not only bad for the environment — they are also bad for us humans. More and more people are finding that they have chemical sensitivities. Also, both septic tanks and cesspits work because of a delicate bacterial balance that can be upset by harsh chemicals.

We have limited access to natural cleaning products here, but many people have tricks for making their own products. I did some research and learned about using vinegar & lemon juice for many household cleaning tasks. I have mixed up a vinegar and lemon juice combination that can be used for all-purpose cleaning & it works really well! I can use it for everything from bathroom & kitchen to the annual wall & ceiling washing. In Saba, moist conditions make it necessary to wash down the walls and ceilings to remove mildew that may have accumulated. In a wood house, like ours, it is not a big problem, but still needs to be done.

I learned that vinegar can also be used for laundry and a whole host of other cleaning jobs. It has side benefits of keeping ants and flies away. Ants do tend to want to come in for a visit to cottages on the island, so vinegar is a good deterrent. I also brought a book with me to make many of my own natural products — we’ll see how that goes! It’s been a lot of fun and it also saves money.

New Mindset
At some point, living this way, I have felt closer to nature and closer to the environment. I feel a co-existence that I had not been aware of living in the land of plenty. I have an even greater respect for nature and I find that this carries with me wherever I go. I also appreciate the raw, untouched beauty of places more than ever before. I accept things in their natural condition, rather than expecting things to be perfectly manicured and polished. Interestingly enough, life is simpler with this mindset. I’m not always looking for the ways to perfect the look of my yard, what I can add or subtract, what more I can do. I find myself being satisfied with “what is” more often. And for those of you who are downshifting, like we did, it’s also great for the pocketbook! Oh, and by the way, I never cared for rain so much as when I moved to Saba — it’s a celebration of a full cistern!

Definition and Ecotourism Principles
TIES defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the following principles:

  • Minimize impact
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
  • Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate
  • Support international human rights and labor agreements

Source: The International Ecotourism Society