Sustainable tourism in the Caribbean

The Caribbean must take the opportunity to improve its approach to tourism in an eco-friendly way.
Photo credit: Daryll Griffith, Wall art seen in Charlotteville, Tobago

The Caribbean is often associated with tantalising images of captivating, blue waters lapping on white, sandy shores; lush, green forests encapsulating villages; and birds freely soaring through azure skies. Consisting of over seven thousand islands, islets, reefs, and cays framed by the Gulf of Mexico, North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean is one of the most revered tropical tourist destinations in the world. The region is a biodiversity hotspot, with an extensive range of rich ecosystems; many of which are vulnerable to the manifestation of the effects of climate change and other anthropogenic occurrences.

Despite the heterogeneity of Caribbean countries in terms of size, national income, and economic and social conditions, tourism is a mainstay for the majority of Caribbean islands. Data from the Caribbean Tourism Organisation shows that in 2015, the Caribbean’s tourism growth surpassed global tourism growth (7% and 4% respectively). Reliance on tourism is heavy and it is a regional trend; Jamaica (27.4% of GDP), St Lucia (39% of GDP), Barbados (39.4% of GDP), The Bahamas (48.4% of GDP), and Antigua & Barbuda (77.4% of GDP).

Success of the tourism industry is directly related to the state of the environment. As such, it is important that Caribbean countries intently develop sustainable tourism in the region, which minimises social, economic, and environmental negative impacts and positively contributes to the stakeholders in the tourism industry. This will give the islands a chance against threats to their main income-generating sector and encourage eco-friendly business practices within the industry. The Caribbean Tourism Organisation shows that there has been a trend of increasing arrivals to the region and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has identified that tourism is a service sector with a strong potential to contribute to economic growth and development. There is great impetus for progress.

2017 has been designated as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism by the United Nations 70th General Assembly. Ideally, this presents a considerable opportunity for Caribbean governments to increase awareness on the significance of sustainable tourism in the region, gathering the support of public and private sector stakeholders and the public, making tourism a stimulant for overall sustainable development. Particularly in light of the universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 2017 can be a point for major improvements in existing policies, to put the region on the path toward positive changes.

How can this be done?

As a biodiversity hotspot, there is much room to grow, by way of e-commerce and online travel sites, which can lead to productivity improvements and industry strengthening. However, there are many benefits to be obtained through serious promotion and implementation of ecotourism as a market segment. Ecotourism will see the conservation of the natural resources, which are the bedrock of the tourism industry. This nature-based approach to tourism contains education features, which seek to improve local and tourist awareness of the environment, as well as reducing the negative impact on the natural and socio-cultural environment, and producing economic benefits for local communities.

For example, sea turtles play an important role in the continued health of marine ecosystems, which are crucial to island states. In the Dominican Republic, turtle conservation teaches both locals and tourists about the importance of turtles for the preservation of the natural. In Trinidad and Tobago, Turtle Village Trust is charged with the responsibility of carrying out monitoring and education programmes. Companies and countries engross tourists with their products in a captivating and educational way. Locals across the country make a living by saving turtles and educating tourists.

An IDB report states that in 2012, ecotourism contributed US$15.7 billion or 4.6 percent of total Gross Domestic Product to the Caribbean region, and 3.9 percent of total employment. Through intensive ecotourism, tourist will be encouraged to observe and appreciate nature while engaging with traditional Caribbean cultures in the natural areas. This coincides with the goals of the UN’s SDGs, as it will facilitate inclusive and sustainable economic growth, social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction, through the creation of green jobs, resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate action, preservation of cultural values, diversity, and heritage, and promotion of peace and security.

Governments may choose to incentivise ecotourism for public and private companies, to encourage nature, outdoor, adventure, wildlife, farm and agricultural and cultural tourism ventures. The key is to make recreational activities beneficial to all parties involved. This will brace the impact of revenue volatility and allow for economic diversification.

Caribbean governments will need to build the capacity of their workforce to enable sustainable tourism, through investing in tertiary level education on the wide-ranging topic. Universities should be able to provide appropriate skills to those interested in being qualified on the processes and practice of sustainable tourism destinations management and marketing. Degree programmes, such as those available at the University of the West Indies, must equip tourism specialists with knowledge, skills, and tools required for high standards of service delivery.

Given that the tourism industry is both a cause of and significantly affected by climate change, it is important to consider sustainable transportation practices for sustainable tourism efforts to be fruitful. Energy and resource consumption puts pressure on the local ecosystems. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), transport-related carbon emissions account for 2% of all carbon emissions worldwide, and are rising fast. However, the EU Airline emissions trading system, where they receive tradable allowances and cap their emissions, is an example of regional efforts to help the tourism sector curb its emissions. On top of that, to stimulate progress, the climate-friendly management systems, such as resource saving initiatives, waste reduction and management, health and safety policy procedures, and supporting local economies and communities, are implemented to reduce carbon emissions and to involve tourists in the adoption of environmentally friendly choices on their trips, such as eco-conscious tours and packages.

Chris Breen, Chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators’ Sustainable Tourism Committee, notes an increase from travellers to assure that they are being eco-friendly. He stated that “If a company cannot be bothered to offer sustainable holidays, by definition it must have a limited lifespan. If what a company is offering is destroying the very place it relies upon, then the product is finite.” Sustainable tourism is better for destinations, better for people, better for the environment – and better for your business.

The Caribbean has first-hand experience of overuse and the subsequent outcomes on the natural environment, society and economy. Many islands for instance, have a history of having lands completely decimated to make room for various industries, such as sugar cane plantations and mining and quarrying. The fallouts created by such actions negatively affect water, air, and land quality today. As such, there are certain laws in existence to protect the natural resources needed for sustainable tourism. The largest framework governing the creation of these laws is the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region. Laws under this convention look at preservation of marine life for sustainable tourism. As island states, this is particularly important. The ocean and the sea provide a main source of food as well as employment. Caribbean countries are also signatories to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which influences the development of ecotourism in the Caribbean. The conservation of biological diversity needs to be a major consideration in development. The use of biological diversity for tourism must be done in a sustainable fashion and there must be a “fair and equitable sharing” of all the benefits that local biodiversity provides.

The Caribbean is very diverse. Landscapes vary from island to island, and culture, geology, and ecology present something distinguishing for the tourist. This diversity must be considered both as a challenge and an opportunity for a sustainable future.

Caribbean Connections

Dizzanne Billy is a Content Creator, Social Media Manager, and Digital Marketing professional. She is an Outreach and Communications Officer at Climate Tracker and a youth leader in the field of environmental activism. Dizzanne graduated from the University of the West Indies with an MSc. in Global Studies, focusing her research on global environmental governance. She is passionate about writing, environmental advocacy, and travel.
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