[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Richard Collett (CNN) reports on Coffee Caye, now reimagined as the Principality of Islandia, a proposed micronation off the coast of Belize.
“Who wouldn’t want to buy an island?” Marshall Mayer asks above the roar of the engine as the boat cuts through the still waters of the Caribbean Sea. Belize City is fast disappearing behind, as a group of mangrove-covered islands grows larger on the horizon. “And I don’t know about you,” says Mayer, “but I certainly 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 crowdfund the purchase of an island. By December 2019, the group’s aspirations became reality, raising over $250,000 to complete the purchase of Coffee Caye, a 1.2-acre, uninhabited island off the coast of Belize.
The investors weren’t just buying into a share of Belizean property. They were also investing in an unusual nation-building project, because Coffee Caye, reimagined as the “Principality of Islandia,” complete with its own national flag, anthem and government, is also the world’s newest “micronation”– an entity that claims independence but isn’t recognized as such by the international community.
Now, in early 2022, Mayer is leading the inaugural tour to Coffee Caye, as a mixed group of investors and intrigued tourists make landfall on the world’s first crowdfunded island.
“That feeling of stepping onto an island that you’ve invested in, and own,” says Mayer, after the 15-minute boat ride from Belize City, “that’s an amazing feeling.”
It takes just a few more minutes to walk from one end of Coffee Caye to the other, but Mayer is keen to take the 13-strong group on the first-ever walking tour of the island.
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 leads down into a shallow bay, had been taken over as a campsite for the night. The other half of Coffee Cayeis thick with scrub and bounded by mangroves.
Mayer and several other investors had camped out on Coffee Caye on scouting trips before, but this was the first overnight tour that anyone — investor or non-investor — could join. It leads on to a wider multi-day tour of mainland Belize, part of the project’s wider plans to promote tourism within their host nation.
For Mayer, it is also the culmination of years of crowdfunding and island-hunting efforts, and he was animated as he showed the group around Coffee Caye.
The initial idea of crowdfunding an island emerged almost 15 years ago, when Gareth Johnson, who is co-founder and CEO of the project, bought the domain name letsbuyanisland.com after deciding it might be fun to buy an island and start a micronation.
Johnson, who couldn’t make it to Belize for this tour, also co-founded Young Pioneer Tours, a company that specializes in taking travelers to extreme destinations like North Korea and Syria, and unrecognized states like Transnistria, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which claim de facto independence from surrounding countries.
With a hardcore customer base dedicated to visiting politically disputed destinations, the notion of buying an island in order to start a micronation was one that would resurface again and again on Johnson’s tours to far-flung locations.
Then, in 2018, when an island in the Philippines came up for sale, Johnson’s old idea of crowdfunding an island was reignited.
“When Gareth first put the idea to me, I thought God no, this will never become a reality,” said Mayer, who met Johnson on a trip run by Young Pioneer Tours. “But he began to explain how much an island might cost, and we realized that actually, there are parts of the world where buying an island was much more realistic than I’d ever thought possible, especially if we clubbed our funds together.”
The founding members established early on that each share in the island would cost $3,250. So far they have sold almost 100 shares and counting. While investors can purchase 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 drawn up after extensive research, and the investors voted on Coffee Caye as a typical tropical island that was also reasonably easy to reach, and that they could afford to buy outright.
Coffee Caye was purchased for $180,000 plus tax, and the sale was completed in December 2019 — right before Covid-19 put a halt to any further plans.
Successfully crowdfunding the purchase of an island might be a world first, but there’s a strong precedent of micronationalism that provided inspiration for the Principality of Islandia, which is a key feature of the project for many of the travel-obsessed investors.
Micronations — often eccentric territories that claim to be independent nation-states –may hand out lavish titles to their supporters and create unusual constitutions and quirky laws.
The Principality of Sealand, a World War II fighting 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 it provided direct inspiration for the Principality of Islandia. Another is the Republic of Uzupis, a neighborhood in Vilnius, Lithuania, that 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 own country?” he says. “Particularly in a post-Trump, post-Brexit, Covid world. If a bunch of regular people can make this work, perhaps it can be a force for good.” [. . .]
[Shown above: Coffee Caye. This tiny island off the coast of Belize has been acquired by a group of investors who hope to turn it into the world’s newest micronation.]