They bought a Caribbean island to found their own country

Richard Collett, CNN

(CNN) — “Who wouldn’t want to buy an island?” asks Marshall Mayer over the roar of the engine as the boat cruises through the calm waters of the Caribbean Sea. Belize City quickly disappears behind, as a group of mangrove-covered islands grows on the horizon.

“And I don’t know about you,” Mayer said, “but I sure can’t afford to buy an island on my own!”

Mayer is co-founder of Let’s Buy an Island, an ambitious project that in 2018 set out to fund the purchase of an island. In December 2019, the group’s aspirations became a reality, raising over $250,000 to complete the purchase of Coffee Caye, an uninhabited 1.2-acre island off the coast of Belize.

Investors were not just buying a share of Belizean property. They were also investing in an unusual nation-building project, as Coffee Caye, reimagined as the “Principality of Islandia”, with its own national flag, anthem and government, is also the world’s newest “micronation” – a entity that claims independence but is not recognized as such by the international community.

Now, in early 2022, Mayer leads the inaugural tour of Coffee Caye, as a mixed group of investors and intrigued tourists land on the world’s first crowd-funded island.

“That feeling of stepping onto an island that you’ve invested in and own,” Mayer says, after the 15-minute boat ride from Belize City, “it’s an amazing feeling.”

It only takes a few more minutes to walk from one end of Coffee Caye to the other, but Mayer is keen to take the group of 13 on the island’s first-ever walking tour.

Coffee Caye is long, thin and vaguely shaped like a coffee bean. One side of the island, where a clearing overlooks a small beach that descends into a shallow bay, had been set up as a campsite for the night. The other half of Coffee Caye is thick with brush and bounded by mangroves.

Mayer and several other investors had camped at Coffee Caye before on scouting trips, but this was the first overnight tour that anyone — investor or non-investor — could go on. It leads into a larger multi-day tour of mainland Belize, which is part of the project’s larger plans to promote tourism in their host country.

A democratic community

For Mayer, it’s also the culmination of years of crowdfunding and island-hunting efforts, and it was animated by showing the Coffee Caye group.

The initial idea for an island crowdfunding emerged almost 15 years ago, when Gareth Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the project, bought the domain name after deciding it could be fun to buy an island and start a micronation.

Johnson, who was unable to make it to Belize for this tour, also co-founded Young Pioneer Tours, a company specializing in escorting travelers to extreme destinations like North Korea and Syria, and unrecognized states. such as Transnistria, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which claim de facto independence from neighboring countries.

With a die-hard clientele dedicated to visiting politically contested destinations, the idea of ​​buying an island in order to start a micronation was one that would crop up again and again during Johnson’s visits to remote places.

Then, in 2018, when an island in the Philippines came up for sale, Johnson’s old idea of ​​crowd-funding an island was revived.

“When Gareth first pitched the idea to me, I thought God no, it would never become a reality,” said Mayer, who met Johnson on a trip organized by Young Pioneer Tours. “But he started explaining how much an island could cost, and we realized that actually there are parts of the world where buying an island was much more realistic than I ever thought possible, especially if we were contributing. our funds together.”

The founding members established early on that each share of the island would cost $3,250. So far they have sold almost 100 shares and counting. While investors can buy multiple shares, each person is only entitled to one vote in the democratic decision-making process.

A shortlist of islands in the Philippines, Malaysia, Ireland, Panama, and Belize was compiled after extensive research, and investors voted for Coffee Caye as a typical tropical island that was also reasonably easy to reach and qu they could afford to buy direct. .

Coffee Caye was purchased for $180,000 plus tax, and the sale closed in December 2019 – just before Covid-19 put a halt to any other projects.

Escape and experimentation

The successful crowdfunding of an island purchase might be a world first, but there is a strong precedent of micronationalism that inspired the Principality of Islandia, which is a key feature of the project for many travel-obsessed investors. .

Micronations – often eccentric territories that pretend to be independent nation states – can hand out lavish titles to their followers and create unusual constitutions and novel laws.

The Principality of Sealand, a World War II combat platform off the coast of England which was declared an independent nation by its new owners in 1967, is a famous example of a micronation and directly inspired the Principality of ‘Islandia. Another is the Republic of Uzupis, a district of Vilnius, Lithuania, which has its own constitution and also claims independence.

For Johnson, turning Coffee Caye into a micronation is a form of escapism and experimentation. “Who hasn’t dreamed of making their country?” he says. “Particularly in a post-Trump, post-Brexit, Covid world. If a group of ordinary people can make this work, maybe it can be a force for good.”

Like many micronations before it, the Principality of Islandia has begun building all the traditional trappings of a nation state. There is a national anthem, an Icelandic flag and an elected government among the investors. Johnson even jokes that he holds the “silent role of chief of the secret police”.

Investors and visitors to Coffee Caye automatically become citizens of the Principality of Islandia – there will also be new Islandia passports – and anyone can support the micronation by purchasing “citizenship” or titles such as Lord or Lady of Islandia for a small fee, without investing.

Nation building, however, has its challenges. Mayer admits that on a previous scouting trip to the island, they had left behind an Islandia flag and an Islandia passport stamp, both of which have since disappeared, sabotaging plans for a ceremony. raise the flag.

Some take the Principality of Islandia more seriously than others.

While Johnson says confidently, “We’re as close to a nation as you can get without having an army and navy,”

Mayer sees it more as an original marketing tool. Mayer points out that micronation should be seen as an “irony in the cheek” and that while they may introduce their own rules while on the island (such as no single-use plastic, he said, he says as an example), Coffee Caye remains falls squarely within the laws and borders of Belize.

“Why wouldn’t I invest? says another investor, Stephen Rice, as the group of visitors mix festive rum coconuts on the beach. “I can tell all my friends that I own an island!”

Investment risk

Rice is dressed in his best quick-drying travel pants and a suit jacket he brought home from the States especially for the occasion.

Rice was the second largest investor in the project – after Mayer – and has been involved from the start. He even narrowly missed being elected Head of State of the Principality of Islandia by one vote in the last elections.

Rice says the project will never make him rich, but the cost of the share won’t put him out of business either. For Rice, it’s all about having fun and fulfilling the dream of owning (or co-owning) an island.

Investors like Rice can visit the island at cost, and they will also receive a percentage of any profits that may be made in the future, or if the island is sold. “You might think I’m trying to sell you a timeshare,” Rice says, “but I’m the one paying to be here on my own island.”

Let’s Buy an Island is still taking investors for the next stage of development, with a cap applied if the number of investors reaches 150. Exactly what the next stage will entail, no one is quite sure, and like the group of tourists sit around the barbecue making lunch and breaking open beers, the future of Coffee Caye is debated.

For a group of travelers more accustomed to exploring ex-Soviet destinations than tropical islands, ideas range from raising a statue of Lenin to creating an underwater sculpture garden of dictators. of the world, which reportedly includes a cast bust of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Mayer’s ideas for the island involve regenerating the surrounding coral reef, while developing a glamping site or turning shipping containers into basic accommodation. He wants the island to become a “meeting place”, with a small restaurant or bar, kayaks and snorkeling; not only for investors, but also for tourists and residents of Belize City.

Potential investors will have questions to ask, however, including concerns about hurricanes and rising sea levels that could affect the island.

Velvet Dallesandro, who joined the tour because she was intrigued by the concept of crowdfunding an island, is still not tempted to invest because of these risks. “Micronation is a real novelty,” she says. “But with climate change, it will be an ongoing battle to keep it above water. One hurricane hit, and that could be it.”

A force for good?

Oscar D. Romero, the Belizean real estate agent who founded Coffee Caye for Let’s Buy an Island, says the group must “balance the environment and economic growth”. Romero explains that they would need environmental permits and government permission for any development, with the mangroves and nearby coral reef having protected status.

Romero says if the island can be developed in a sustainable way, involves local Belizeans wherever possible and helps regenerate the environment, then the project can be a force for good.

The future of Coffee Caye and the Principality of Islandia is in the hands of its investors, and it remains to be seen if and how the island will grow, and how far the experiment in micronationalism will be taken.

In the short term, Coffee Caye and the Principality of Islandia have already helped to create one of the most eccentric communities of travelers in the world. There are investors from 25 different countries, with professions ranging from train driver to CEO, but all have skills and enthusiasm to launch on the island.

Mayer even brought his girlfriend here to propose (she said yes), while Rice says Coffee Caye “totally ruined my travel philosophy of going one place, one time. I’ve been there three times already.”

“People really bought into the concept,” Mayer says as the group departs the island the next day. “It was a crazy leap of faith to do, but our initial goal of buying an island, we did it. But the next phase, where we go next, we never had any plans because we didn’t didn’t know we’d go this far.”

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Lynn A. Saleh