(CNN) – “Who wouldn’t want to buy an island?” asks Marshall Meyer over the roar of the engine as the boat cuts through the still waters of the Caribbean. Belize City is rapidly disappearing, and a cluster of mangrove-covered islands is rising on the horizon.
“I don’t know about you,” Mayer says, “but I definitely can’t afford to buy an island on my own!”
Investors didn’t just buy a stake in Belize property. They also invested in an unusual nation-building project because Coffee Caye, reimagined as the “Principality of Iceland” with its own national flag, anthem and government, is also the world’s newest “micronation” – an organization that claims independence but is not recognized as such. the international community.
Now in early 2022, Mayer is leading the first tour of Coffee Cay as a mixed group of investors and intrigued tourists come ashore on the world’s first crowdfunded island.
“The feeling of stepping foot on an island that you have invested in and own,” Mayer says after a 15-minute boat ride from Belize, “is an amazing feeling.”
It 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 resembles a coffee bean. One side of the island, where the clearing opens onto a small beach descending into a shallow bay, was given over to camp for the night. The other half of Coffee Caye covered with dense shrubs and bordered by mangroves.
Mayer and a few other investors had stopped at Coffee Cay on sightseeing tours before, but this was the first overnight tour that anyone, investor or non-investor, could join. This leads to a wider multi-day tour of mainland Belize, part of the project’s broader plans to promote tourism in the host country.
Of all the things he looks at: Investor Steven Rice in Iceland.
For Mayer, it’s also the culmination of years of crowdfunding and island hunting efforts, and he was elated when he showed the group around the Caye coffee shop.
The original idea for crowdfunding the island came about almost 15 years ago when Gareth Johnson, who is co-founder and CEO of the project, bought the domain name letsbuyanisland.com after he decided it would be interesting to buy an island and start a microstate.
Johnson, who was unable to make it to Belize for the tour, also co-founded Young Pioneer Tours, a company that specializes in taking travelers to extreme places like North Korea and Syria, as well as unrecognized states like Transnistria, Abkhazia, and Nagorny. Karabakh. who claim de facto independence from neighboring countries.
With a die-hard client base dedicated to visiting politically contentious destinations, the idea of buying an island to create a microstate resurfaced again and again on Johnson’s tours to outlying locations.
Then, in 2018, when an island in the Philippines was put up for sale, Johnson’s old idea of crowdfunding an island was revived.
“When Gareth first pitched the idea to me, I thought, God, no, this is never going to happen,” said Mayer, who met Johnson on a trip organized by Young Pioneer Tours. “But he started to explain how much an island could cost, and we realized that there are actually parts of the world where buying an island was much more feasible than I ever thought, especially if we pooled our funds.”
The founding members had set in advance that each share on the island would be worth $3,250. So far, they have sold almost 100 shares, and this number continues to grow. While investors can purchase multiple shares, each person is only entitled to one vote in the democratic decision-making process.
The shortlisted islands in the Philippines, Malaysia, Ireland, Panama and Belize were compiled after extensive research, and investors voted Coffee Cay as a typical tropical island that is also fairly easy to get to and can afford to buy outright. .
Coffee Caye was purchased for $180,000 plus tax and the sale was completed in December 2019 – just before Covid-19 put an end to any further plans.
Escapism and experimentation
The only dwelling is under canvas.
A successful crowdfunding to buy an island may be the first in the world, but there is a strong precedent for micronationalism that inspired the Principality of Iceland, a key feature of the project for many travel-obsessed investors.
Micronations — often eccentric territories that claim to be independent nation-states — can dispense lavish titles to their supporters and create unusual constitutions and bizarre laws.
The Principality of Sealand, a World War II battle platform off the coast of England that was declared an independent nation by its new owners in 1967, is one famous example of a micronation and was the direct inspiration for the Principality of Iceland. Another is the Republic of Užupis, a district in 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 creating their own country?” He says. “Especially in a post-Trump, Brexit and Covid world. If a group of ordinary people can make it work, maybe it will become a force for good.”
Like many micronations before it, the Principality of Iceland began to build all the traditional trappings of a nation state. There is the national anthem, the flag of Iceland and the government, which is elected among investors. Johnson even jokes that he has a “quiet, quiet role as head of the secret police.”
Investors and visitors to Coffee Caye automatically become citizens of the Principality of Iceland – there will also be new Icelandic passports – and anyone can support the microstate by purchasing “citizenship” or titles such as Lord or Lady of Iceland for a small amount. fee, no investment.
However, nation-building has its own problems. Maier admits that during a previous reconnaissance trip to the island, they left an Icelandic flag and an Icelandic passport stamp, which have since disappeared, preventing the flag-raising ceremony from taking place.
Some take the Principality of Iceland more seriously than others.
While Johnson confidently says, “We’re as close to the nation as we can be without an army and a navy.”
Mayer sees it as more of a fancy marketing tool. Meyer emphasizes that the micronation should be seen as “an irony on the cheek,” and that while they can make their own rules when they’re on the island (like banning single-use plastic, as he said as an example), Coffee Caye is still completely subject to the laws and boundaries of Belize.
“Why shouldn’t I invest?” says another investor, Steven Rice, as a group of guests mix holiday coconuts and rum on the beach. “I can tell all my friends that I have an island!”
Investors will have to weigh the risks associated with hurricanes and rising sea levels.
Rice is dressed in his best quick-drying travel pants and a jacket he brought from the US especially for the occasion.
Rice was the second investor in the project – after Mayer – and he was involved in it from the very beginning. He even narrowly missed being elected head of state of the Principality of Iceland by one vote in the last election.
Rice says the project will never make him rich, but the cost of the stake won’t ruin him either. For Rice, it is above all entertainment and the fulfillment of the dream of owning (or jointly owning) an island.
Investors such as Rice can visit the island at cost, as well as earn 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,” says Rice, “but I’m paying to be here on my own island.”
Let’s Buy an Island is still attracting investors for the next phase of development, with the cap taking effect if the number of investors reaches 150. Exactly what the next phase will entail, no one is quite sure, and while the tour group sits around a barbecue preparing lunch and opening a beer discusses the future of Coffee Caye.
They are a group of travelers more accustomed to exploring the former Soviet Union than tropical islands, and their ideas range from erecting a statue of Lenin to creating an underwater sculpture garden of the world’s dictators, which will include a sunken bust of North Korean Kim Jong-un.
Mayer’s ideas for the island include restoring the surrounding coral reef, as well as creating a glamping site or converting shipping containers into simple boutique hotels. He wants the island to be a “meeting place” with a small restaurant or bar, kayaks, and snorkeling; not only for investors, but also for tourists and locals who come from Belize.
However, potential investors will be asking questions, 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 island’s crowdfunding concept, is still not tempted to invest because of these risks. “Micronation is a real novelty,” she says. “But with climate change, there will be an ongoing battle to keep it above water. One hit of a hurricane and that could be the end.”
The power of good?
Shares on the island are still available at $3,250 each.
Oscar D. Romero, the Belizean real estate agent who founded Coffee Caye for Buy an Island, says the group needs to “balance the environment and economic growth.” Romero explains that they will need environmental and government permits for any development, with both the mangroves and the nearby barrier reef having protected status.
Romero says that if the island can be developed in a sustainable way, involving local Belizeans where possible and helping to restore the environment, then the project could be a force for good.
The future of Coffee Cay and the Principality of Iceland is in the hands of its investors, and it remains to be seen whether and how the island will develop, and how far the experiment with micronationalism will go.
In the short term, Coffee Caye and the Principality of Iceland have already helped create one of the most quirky travel communities in the world. There are investors from 25 different countries, with professions from train conductor to CEO, but they all have the skill set and enthusiasm to rush to the island.
Meyer even brought his girlfriend here to propose (she accepted), while Rice says Coffee Caye “completely messed up my travel philosophy of only going to one place once. I’ve been here three times already.”
“People really got into the idea,” Mayer says as the group leaves the island the next day. “It was a crazy leap of faith, but our original goal of buying an island has been reached. But the next stage, when we move on to the next one, we never had any plans because we didn’t know we’d make it this far.