Grand entrance: Cruise ships dock at Roatáns Mahogany Bay, one of two ports on the island that serve as a gateway for tourism.
Devon Stephens/Alamy
Devon Stephens/Alamy

For decades, the island was a well-kept secret when compared to higher-profile Caribbean island vacation spots, attracting mainly a scuba-diving crowd to its clear waters and easily accessible reefs. A current tourist map shows the island pretty much circled by little diver-down flags, like a halo telling PADI-card carriers that they have, indeed, arrived in heaven.

Mainland Honduran families have also long come to enjoy the beaches, the quaint coastal villages with their stilt houses built over the water and the unique wildlife, such as the endangered Roatán agouti.

Get up close and personal with bottle-nosed dolphins at Anthonys Key Resort.
Courtesy Anthonys Key Resort
“We used to do summer vacations here,” recalls Laura Alvarado, the director of sales for Roatán’s Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort. Alvarado was born across a 40-mile stretch of Caribbean waters from the island in the coastal Honduran city of La Ceiba. “When we came here, we used to stay in West End in little wooden cabins that didn’t even have air conditioning. There was actually nothing on the whole West Bay beach — nothing. It was the best beach on the island, but there was nothing.”

Tourism development began to ramp up within the past 20 years or so, with dive-­oriented properties like Anthony’s Key Resort expanding and diversifying their ­operations. (Anthony’s Key also operates the Roatán Museum and Roatán Institute of Marine Sciences and maintains a pod of some 30 bottle-nosed dolphins for guest encounters.) New condo-style hotel properties, such as the stylish, service-driven Infinity Bay and its neighbors on the pristine sands of West Bay beach, sprang up throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit the whole country hard, including Roatán; much of the building and tourism boom on the island came in its wake. That trend also led to demographic changes, as Latino mainlanders came to Roatán in large numbers to work construction and service jobs. Today, it’s estimated that about half of Roatán’s population — roughly 70,000 people, including part-time inhabitants — primarily speak English, and half primarily speak Spanish. “Ten years ago, you hardly heard Spanish,” says Graham Blaikie, who owns the Hungry Munkey restaurant in the island’s West Bay area. “There are some places you go now where they don’t even speak English.”

The worldwide economic crisis of 2008 slowed Roatán’s development boom. But some longtime islanders didn’t necessarily see that check on development as a bad thing.