“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 Caye is 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.
A democratic community
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.
Escapism and experimentation
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.”
Like many micronations before it, the Principality of Islandia has begun building all the traditional trappings of a nation-state. There’s a national anthem, an Islandia flag and a government that’s elected from amongst the investors. Johnson even jokes that he holds the “hush, hush role of Head of the Secret Police.”
Investors and visitors to Coffee Caye automatically become citizens of the Principality of Islandia – there will be novelty Islandia passports, too – 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 has its challenges, though. Mayer admits that on a previous scouting trip to the island, they’d left behind an Islandia flag and an Islandia passport stamp, both of which have since disappeared, scuppering plans for a flag-raising ceremony.
Some take the Principality of Islandia more seriously than others.
While Johnson confidently says: “We are as close to a nation as you can get, without getting an army and a navy,”
Mayer sees it as more of a quirky marketing tool. Mayer emphasizes that the micronation should be seen as “tongue in cheek,” and that while they might bring in their own rules when they are on the island (such as no single-use plastics, he said as an example), Coffee Caye still falls squarely within the laws and borders of Belize.
“Why wouldn’t I invest?” says another investor, Stephen Rice, as the visiting group mixes up celebratory rum coconuts on the beach. “I can tell all my friends that I own an island!”
Rice is dressed in his best quick-drying travel trousers and a suit jacket he’s brought all the way from the US, especially for the occasion.
Rice was the second investor in the project – after Mayer – and he’s been involved from the start. He even narrowly missed out on being elected Head of State of the Principality of Islandia by one vote in the most recent elections.
Rice says that the project is never going to make him rich, but the cost of the share also isn’t going to bankrupt him. For Rice, it’s primarily 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’ll also receive a percentage of any profits that might 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 the one paying to be here on my own island.”
Let’s Buy an Island is still taking investors on for the next stage of development, with a cap being enforced if investor numbers hit 150. Exactly what the next stage will entail, no one is quite sure, and as the tour group sits around the barbecue cooking up lunch and cracking open beers, Coffee Caye’s future is debated.
This being 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 world dictators, which would include a sunken bust of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Mayer’s ideas for the island involve regenerating the surrounding coral reef, while also developing a glamping site or turning shipping containers into basic boutique accommodation. He wants the island to become a “mingling place,” with a small restaurant or bar, and kayaks and snorkeling; not just for investors, but for tourists and locals to visit from Belize City.
Potential investors will have questions to ask, though, 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, still isn’t tempted to invest because of these risks. “The micronation is a real novelty,” she says. “But with climate change, it’s going to be an ongoing battle to keep it above water. One hit from a hurricane, and that could be it.”
A force for good?
Oscar D. Romero, the Belizean real estate agent who found Coffee Caye for Let’s Buy an Island, says the group needs “to balance the environment and economic growth.” Romero explains that they would need environmental permits and clearance from the government for any development, with both mangroves and the nearby barrier reef having protected status.
Romero says that if the island can be developed sustainably, 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 is developed, and how far the experiment with micronationalism is taken.
In the short term, Coffee Caye and the Principality of Islandia have already helped to create one of the world’s quirkier travel-loving communities. There are investors from 25 different countries, with professions ranging from train conductor to CEO, but all of them have skill sets and enthusiasm to throw at the island.
Mayer even brought his girlfriend here to propose (she said yes), while Rice says that Coffee Caye “has totally messed with my travel philosophy of going to one place, only once. I’ve already been here three times already.”
“People really bought into the concept,” says Mayer as the group leaves the island the next day. “It was a crazy leap of faith to take, but our initial goal of buying an island, we’ve done it. But the next phase, where we go to next, we never had any plans because we didn’t know we’d make it this far.”