Sustainable Tourism in the Caribbean

Gail-Henry (1)

Gail Henry, Sustainable Tourism Product Specialist at the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) talks to Global Island News.

In your view, what are the most inspired and informed sustainable partnerships, projects and new developments across the Caribbean, which are marked by regional cooperation?

Three of the most important regional sustainable tourism initiatives in which the Caribbean Tourism Organisation have partnered with organisations to implement are:

1) The establishment of the Sustainable Destinations Alliance for the Americas (SDAA) – the first-ever large-scale multi-sector initiative for sustainable tourism destinations in the Caribbean and Latin American regions. The initiative was launched in March 2014 and aims to improve the way tourism is managed and to enhance the global competitiveness of the region by embedding sustainability into the day-to-day management and marketing of destinations throughout the region. Under the programme, various tools for measuring and monitoring destination sustainability will be provided, multi-stakeholder destination management will be encouraged and the local capacity to do so will be built. The other partner organisations are the Organisation of American States, the US Permanent Mission to the OAS, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Sustainable Travel International and the Central American Tourism Integration Secretariat. The first seven pilot destinations are Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Honduras, Jamaica, and Nicaragua, but the goal is to expand the initiative to the other Caribbean and Central American countries.

2) The establishment of the Greater Caribbean region as the world’s first-ever “Sustainable Tourism Zone” in November 2013, following ratification of the Convention establishing the Zone by member states of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). According to the ACS, “protecting and guaranteeing tourism as a long-term activity was the main consideration in seeking to establish the Caribbean region as a Sustainable Tourism Zone” (STZC). The ACS also sees the zone as a “geographically determined cultural, socioeconomic and biologically rich and diverse unit, in which tourism development will depend on the sustainability and the principles of integration, cooperation and consensus, aimed at facilitating the integrated development of the Greater Caribbean.” The CTO has been supporting the STZC since its inception.

3) The implementation of the Caribbean Hotel Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Action Programme in partnership with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. This programme is part of an ongoing effort to encourage energy efficient practices and the use of renewable energy technologies in the Caribbean hotel sector. It also seeks to encourage hoteliers in the region to adopt practices that could significantly reduce hotels’ carbon emissions. The programme will also provide policy recommendations, establish demonstration projects and develop a mechanism for accessing financing for acquiring renewable energy technologies. The main pilot countries thus far are Barbados, The Bahamas and Jamaica, but it is anticipated that the programme will evolve to include several other countries. This is one example of regional level public-private sector partnerships in the Caribbean tourism industry.

Many Caribbean destinations offer experiences that are very much aligned to having a responsible holiday, but they are not always marketed as aggressively as the typical sun, sea and sand product.

What more needs to be done across the Caribbean to achieve the right balance between economic development, the existing environment and its resources?

Economic development requires the use of natural and/or human resources and in many instances, the former impacts the natural environment, but to varying degrees. Specifically for the tourism industry, the key lies in embracing the principles of sustainable and responsible tourism at both the macro level – tourism policies, strategies and plans – and also at the micro level – by getting businesses and social enterprises to buy into and put into practice, initiatives that have minimal negative environmental and social impact, and in which employees and communities also see for themselves a role in engendering and benefitting from sustainability.

Do you see anything inconsistent between promoting sustainable tourism development and the increase in air travel that often comes with this?

The majority of visitors to the Caribbean and between Caribbean destinations have to arrive by either air or sea. An increase in air travel implies that a greater number of visitors are arriving, but that does not always translate into mass tourism. Many Caribbean destinations offer experiences that are very much aligned to having a responsible holiday, but they are not always marketed as aggressively as the typical sun, sea and sand product. Through the CTO’s ‘Caribbean Excellence in Sustainable Tourism Awards’ competition we are attempting to highlight Caribbean destinations’ sustainability initiatives and products, including accommodation facilities and attractions that are reducing their carbon footprint, and how these have been benefitting communities. We are also enhancing our database of these experiences so that we can better market them at a regional level, as well as encouraging our Members to tap into the growing market for them. Then, we need to tell our sustainability stories to the world.

Are you satisfied Caribbean destinations are sufficiently benefiting from their tourism sectors to the tune of revenues positively impacting their own citizens’ lives on the ground?

There will always be scope for improvement in spreading the benefits of tourism to a greater number of communities and citizens. I see several ways in which this can be done, such as embracing sustainable and responsible tourism principles and practices, encouraging the social enterprise concept, empowering communities to drive tourism and have a greater input into tourism planning and management, and building their capacity to create more experiential tourism experiences, which can provide more opportunities for better community-visitor engagement. The latter can provide more business and employment opportunities within communities and assist in enhancing the quality of their lives.

How can major tour operators – many of whom wield great influence in small island states and territories – be persuaded that sustainable strategies make sound business sense?

From the trends that we are seeing, many major tour operators that have clients within the Caribbean are already pursuing more sustainable strategies, and others will follow. The onus is now on tourism authorities and operators in Caribbean destinations to meet their requirements, as well as those of the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for destinations and businesses. As the tourism development agency for the Caribbean, initiatives such as the ones mentioned earlier are designed to facilitate tourism sustainability in our Member countries at a very practical level. However, there is still some work to do in persuading some private sector entities that sustainability makes good business sense. Using private sector champions who are already walking the sustainability road successfully is one mechanism that we plan to use increasingly through various channels, including our conferences, as well as print, electronic and social media portals. There are many successful examples around the Caribbean that we have been giving exposure to and many more that we should.

Sustainable development and sustainable tourism are journeys, not destinations.

Where in particular has the growth of tourism led to, and been informed by, capacity building and institutional reform, thereby leading to optimum sustainable development of the sector?

Sustainable development and sustainable tourism are journeys, not destinations – the process is ongoing. Many Caribbean destinations have already taken several steps along this journey. However, capacity building regarding tourism sustainability is an expressed ongoing need in this region, especially given evolving global sustainability trends. The CTO facilitates capacity building through our sustainable tourism conferences, webinars, workshops and sharing of appropriate tools. The regional universities also offer training in sustainable tourism and we are developing online sustainable tourism courses. We have seen the development of an increasing number of tourism policies, strategic plans and initiatives that incorporate sustainability principles in countries that are vastly different, including more mature destinations, such as Barbados, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, primarily eco-tourism destinations, such as Belize and Guyana, and even in destinations with a significant focus on high-end tourism products, such as Anguilla, The Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands. This means that the sustainability messages are getting through.

As part of the tourism planning process, institutional reform has been taking place at the level of the tourism institutional framework, with a trend towards establishing separate national entities for tourism development, marketing, product development, investment and so on. This will require greater inter-agency coordination. But what is even more interesting is that we are also seeing the creation of new positions within Ministries of Tourism specifically to address sustainability, community, climate change and environmental management issues, and that’s a very good signal for the future of Caribbean tourism.

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