I love Caribbean travel and want to promote all that is unique and great about the region. It is why I launched Caribbean & Co. five years ago to showcase authentic experiences going beyond sun, sand, and sea. But the challenges that come with globalization (including loss of cultural identity), climate change as well as over-tourism in some destinations raises serious questions about the future of tourism in the Caribbean.
This was all brought into focus two weeks ago while attending the Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development in Saint Vincent & The Grenadines. Hurricane Dorian passed over, and thankfully, there was no destruction, so the conference was able to resume after a one-day delay. Sadly, Hurricane Dorian went on to wreak havoc on two of the 700 islands in The Bahamas. It will take years for those two Bahamas islands (Abaco and Grand Bahama) to bounce back fully!
Back in Saint Vincent & The Grenadines at the Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development, there was a range of speakers who sounded the alarm but also gave hope that it was possible to develop sustainable tourism in the Caribbean region. But what exactly is sustainable tourism? Well, the CTO Caribbean Sustainable Tourism Policy Framework document published in 2008 defines sustainable tourism as
“the optimal use of social, natural, cultural and financial resources for national development on an equitable and self-sustaining basis to provide a unique visitor experience and an improved quality of life through partnerships among government, the private sector, and communities.”
Essentially, sustainable tourism in the Caribbean requires proactive, meaningful, and equal involvement from all stakeholders (government, private entities, local citizens, etc.) for it to be successful.
Reflecting on the conference, below are what I believe to be the five critical elements for developing sustainable tourism in the Caribbean:
- Increasing Proactive Measures to Protect the Region’s Environment
- Investing in Community Tourism
- Embracing and Showcasing Caribbean Food
- Investing in Regional Tourism
- Investing in Technology & Virtual Tourism Products
1. Increasing Proactive Measures to Protect the Region’s Environment
Climate change is real, and the Caribbean needs to step up its collective efforts to protect the region. Protecting the environment in the Caribbean isn’t just about developing sustainable tourism but the survival of the region, as with rising sea levels, many coastal communities of the Caribbean could be lost to the sea. Also, increasing air and sea surface temperatures will result in more dangerous tropical storms and hurricanes.
And, as I wrote in 2017 after Hurricanes Irma & Maria, it is time for increased collective lobbying to get larger nations and more significant polluters like the United States and China to adhere to the Paris Agreement, which seeks to combat climate change and accelerate investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future. Also, Caribbean governments need to build on the findings from the Caribbean Regional Strategic Program for Climate Resistance, funded in part by the US$8.3 billion Climate Investment Funds (CIF).
Beyond the collective efforts, each Caribbean country needs to develop and implement policies for using their existing energy sources more efficiently. They also need to invest in cleaner and more sustainable renewable energy sources like solar, wind, marine, and geothermal energy. And according to the Caribbean Development Bank, Montserrat, Dominica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia Grenada, and St Vincent & The Grenadines have begun exploring or developing geothermal energy.
In fact, while in St Vincent & The Grenadines, we got the chance to visit the exploratory geothermal drilling wells in the rainforest near Bamboo Range, La Soufriere. Launched earlier this year under the direction of the St Vincent Geothermal Company Limited, the geothermal project is owned by the Icelandic company Reykjavik Geothermal and the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
According to Thorleifur Finnson, Managing Director and Head of Project Development with Reykjavík Geothermal, if successful in finding heat (220 to 230 degrees Celsius or higher) and a consistent water source, then
“it is estimated that it will be possible to take at least ten megawatts out of those three wells…which is about 60% of the installed power necessary for the island.”
Finnson goes on to explain that the long-term benefits from the geothermal project would include reduced reliance on fossil fuels, currently at 80%, clean energy, lower-priced energy, and downstream applications such as using steam for vegetable and fruit drying, flower and fish farming, and spas.
2. Investing in Community Tourism
Another critical aspect of developing sustainable tourism in the Caribbean is championing community tourism. What is community tourism? Well, according to the CTO European Commission 2006 report titled: Competing with the Best: Good Practices in Community-Based Tourism in the Caribbean,
“community tourism is a collaborative approach to tourism in which community members exercise control through active participation in appraisal, development, management and/or ownership (whole or in part) of enterprises that deliver net socio-economic benefits to community members, conserves natural and cultural [heritage] resources and adds value to the experiences of local and foreign visitors. This encompasses both tourism activities in a community and goods and services supplied to the tourism industry by one or more community members.”
Important here is that community involvement not be superficial as more and more visitors to the Caribbean region are looking for authentic experiences to connect with locals. This is backed up by preliminary results from a 2019 study undertaken by Euromonitor Consulting for Compete Caribbean. Presented at the Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development in Saint Vincent & The Grenadines, it indicates that “tourists seek all-encompassing experiences such as creating their own ceramic pot with an artisan as opposed to simply purchasing a pot.” Also, “tourists are becoming more mindful of others, including the community and environment, and seek niche tourism experiences (sustainable tourism, ecotourism, impact tourism).”
What are some of the thriving community tourism enterprises in the Caribbean? Well, in checking with conference presenter Judy Karwack, President of Small Planet, here are a few:
Jamaica Community Experiences
Jamaica Community Experiences is a diverse mix of community tourism experiences in Jamaica, including Holywell Recreational Park, Rastafari Indigenous Village, Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, Cockpit Country Adventure Tours/ Rockspring Cave Exploration, and Bunker’s Hill Cultural Experience.
Rewa Eco-Lodge, Guyana
Rewa Eco-Lodge is an Amerindian-run lodge deep in the Guyana rainforest. Accommodations include traditional benabs and new thatch cabins. Activities include bird watching, fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing, boating in dug-out canoes, and learning about the Amerindian culture.
Suramae Eco-lodge, Guyana
Suramae Eco-lodge is an Amerindian community-based tourism initiative in the Surama Village of the Rupununi region of Guyana. Accommodations include eight simple and basic benabs (cottages). Activities include birding, hiking, wildlife spotting, camping, and cultural interactions.
Karanambu & Trust Lodge, Guyana
Located in the North Rupununi, a region of southwestern Guyana, the Karanambu & Trust Lodge sits on a former cattle ranch with over 700 species of fish in its wetlands, where you can stay in traditional thatched cabins. Activities include searching for wild otters, birding, fishing, boating, hiking, and visiting local Amerindian villages.
Belmont Estate, Grenada
Belmont Estate with a history dating back to the 1600s is an agro-tourism business in the historic northern part of Grenada. Activities include tours of their organic farm, gardens, heritage museum, and cocoa and chocolate processing facilities. Belmont Estate also has an excellent restaurant featuring traditional Grenadian cuisine.
3.Embracing and Showcasing Caribbean Food
Sun, sand, and sea are not unique to the Caribbean. What is unique are the people, culture, heritage, music, local attractions, and food. However, Caribbean food is often sidelined at most Caribbean hotels and resorts in favor of American and European cuisine. This is rather disappointing as food is a gateway to the history and culture of a country. Furthermore, food creates lasting memories that help to define a vacation or travel experience.
Thinking of my time in Saint Vincent & The Grenadines for the Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development, nothing pleased me more than when the breakfast menu at Beachcombers Hotel included fresh fruits, local juices made with soursop, mango, guava, etc., and traditional dishes like Johnny cakes and saltfish.
But my favorite food experience on this trip was eating the Boul Joul (buljol), aka Roast Breadfruit Bowl with saltfish, plantains, and beans, served while sitting on The Terrace at the Grenadine House looking out at the capital city of Kingstown. Beautifully presented and delicious, the traditional dish showed just what was possible with Caribbean food. Everyone at the table, many of whom had never tried breadfruit before, loved it and would eat it again! This led to a few of us searching for breadfruit chips, which we eventually found at the airport gift shop.
Increased awareness and enjoyment of Caribbean food at major hotels and resorts creates demand which in turn creates opportunities for local farmers, restaurants, food festivals, food tours, cooking classes, and food producers. So should Caribbean governments legislate on this matter like the Lombardy region of Italy who recently passed a law that farmhouse hotels must serve 80% local food and always local wine? Perhaps not at this stage, but there should be more policies and programs in place to incentivize hoteliers to serve up more Caribbean food. So too should there be local programs to help food and beverage companies develop and market their products for export across the Caribbean region and to major source markets like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
This integrated approach to producing, promoting and marketing Caribbean food was highlighted by the keynote speaker, Elizabeth Thompson, the Barbados Ambassador to the United Nations in her speech titled Keeping the Right Balance: Tourism Development in an Era of Diversification. Ambassador Thompson stated:
“Hotels and restaurants must serve more local foods, fruits, and juices. Not only will this reduce our import bill and foreign exchange outflows, but create new revenue streams and markets. A visitor can eat a profiterole or a pancake anywhere in the world, but he cannot get a bake or guava cheese. It is only in our region that he can enjoy the perfect slice of sweet bread with the soft sugared coconut in the center.
In that regard, there are some virtuous cycles on which we must close the loops. It is in moving from primary to tertiary products which will increase visitor spend. We catch fish and throw away a lot of what we call waste that could be used for the production of fish fingers, fish burgers, fish nuggets, smoked fish, TV fish dinners augmented by Caribbean flavors such as passion fruit mango and coconut. Fish skins make beautiful leathers for which there is a market. Fish meal is a staple in pet foods. Sargassum is a resource which can be used as an ingredient in animal feed and high-end makeup and skincare products.
Every tourist, from having tasted them at hotels and restaurants, should be leaving the islands with a range of bottled sauces, preserves, and goodies. And in a world where every next person is gluten intolerant, why are we not producing and exporting cassava and breadfruit and coconut flours? SVG used to produce an excellent smoked mahi-mahi. This is one way of extending and improving on the visitor experience and spend. Our cuisine and culture must not be seen as separate and distinct from the tourism product but integral to providing a uniquely immersive and memorable experience for the visitor.”
4. Investing in Regional Tourism
An untapped market for the Caribbean is the region itself, with approximately 45 million people. It is already the fourth largest source market after the United States (14.1 million), Europe (5.9 million), and Canada (3.3 million), with 1.9 million Caribbean nationals vacationing across the region in 2018. As detailed in the Caribbean Tourism Annual Statistical Report 2018, 1.9 million represents 6.5% of the 30.2 million stay-over tourist arrivals to the Caribbean. Thus, with increased marketing to locals as well as potential visitors across the region, it is another way to develop sustainable tourism in the Caribbean.
Caribbean nationals are already familiar with the culture, and with beautiful white and black sand beaches on their islands, they are more likely to venture out on their vacation to experience local attractions and patronize local businesses. This is especially true around major festivals and carnivals, the biggest in Trinidad & Tobago, which according to government reports, injects US$100 million into the country’s economy. This figure is impressive but not surprising as Trinidad & Tobago Carnival and others like Antigua Carnival, which I attended this year, generate revenue not just for hotels, homestay accommodations, bars, restaurants, and taxi drivers but also masquerade bands, costume designers, makeup artists, event organizers and promoters, musicians, singers, songwriters, choreographers, etc.
Of course, to fully maximize the potential for regional travel, significant improvements need to be made to the fragmented air service, which is often more expensive than flying to the United States or Canada. This is due in part to the various government taxes, fees, and charges (TFCs) which increase ticket prices by 40% to 50%. Essentially, Caribbean governments need to be bold and reduce the taxes on airfares in the region to make them more affordable. The lost airfare tax revenue would then be made up from the tax revenue generated by the increasing visitors and economic activity. Mainly, Caribbean governments would then collect other tax revenue (i.e., sales tax and/or value-added tax, etc.) at a similar or perhaps even higher level than the amount lost by reducing the taxes on airfares.
Beyond reducing the TFCs on inter-regional air services primarily provided by Liat and Caribbean Airlines, improving the ferry service is also essential for developing sustainable tourism in the Caribbean. Not only does it create another mode of transportation for visitors to get from one island to the other, but it would also be another avenue to import and export goods to and from neighboring islands.
5.Investing in Technology & Virtual Travel Experiences
While not discussed at the Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development in St Vincent & The Grenadines, technology in particularly virtual reality could play an important role in developing sustainable tourism in the Caribbean. This is because what the Caribbean needs, is not more tourists but higher spending stay-over tourists. Tourists that will venture beyond the luxury hotels and resorts that are mostly owned by foreign entities spending money in local communities by experiencing local attractions stopping to shop at local stores and markets; also eating and drinking at local bars and restaurants.
This line of thinking may be controversial to some, but the region already attracts over 30 million visitors a year. So from 4.2 million in 1970 to 6.9 million in 1980 to 12.8 million in 1990 to 20.3 million in 2000 to 22.3million in 2010 to 30.2 million in 2019. The growth is impressive, but when you drill down there is cause for concern that over-tourism could become a major problem for Caribbean destinations like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Aruba who combined, attract 58% of the stay-over tourists to the region. Thus, when looking at sustainability, the numbers of visitors becomes a vanity metric. More important is the average visitor spend and the number of businesses benefiting from that spend.
Ambassador Elizabeth Thompson also made this point in her keynote speech at the 2018 Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development. She said,
“There is another sense in which data has been a constant concern for me, the fact that the definition of success in tourism is numbers-driven, not value-driven. At the base of our marketing effort is an increase in tourism arrivals. It appears to me, as a non-tourism specialist, that counting arrivals takes precedence over counting and increasing per capita visitor spend. Caribbean countries are small, fragile ecosystems. We are, for the most part, extremely water-scarce or water-stressed. There is a limit to the number of bodies and footfalls that we can have at a beach, in a cave, at a waterfall or at an attraction on any single day, before the pressure on that ecosystem becomes unsustainable.
In some instances, over-tourism and ecosystem fatigue are evident at some locations and in some countries. For some considerable time and indeed at a keynote I delivered at a CTO conference about three years ago, I have been raising this issue of the carrying capacity of the ecosystems, infrastructures, and services of the islands, including the generation and disposal of waste. How do we price our product against the reality, not of increasing the numbers, but respecting the carrying capacity of the islands, while trying to increase visitor spend? Carrying capacity and sustainability are by very definition, closely linked. It is toward this objective that we should be collecting and collating data for planning purposes.”
With this in mind, Caribbean destinations need to get serious about developing tourism niches beyond sun, sand, and sea. Profitable niches include adventure tourism, cultural tourism, food tourism, religious tourism, health and wellness tourism, sports tourism, and medical tourism.
Whatever the niche, virtual reality provides an opportunity for Caribbean destinations to launch and accelerate growth in niche tourism products going beyond standard brochures, photos, and videos as sales agent training and consumer marketing tools. Using a virtual reality headset, a user is transported to a destination with an immersive experience that is a mix of images, 360 video, text, sounds, and other physical sensations. The user can move around and in some cases, interact with various elements. Virtual reality can also be experienced on social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo, which have embraced the technology and allow you to explore the 360 elements by using the mouse on your computer.
Ed Limon, Creative Director at Winged Whale Media who has worked with a number of Caribbean destinations (Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, The Bahamas, and Cuba) on virtual reality projects, indicates that conversations become more genuine after a virtual reality experience leading to an increase in sales. That’s because the virtual reality experience “is not only immersive but also educational and informative where it entices and inspires the user to have that full experience.” Limon goes on to indicate that “virtual reality is not just about 360 videos being really cool. There is definitely a strategy on how the technology is used and implemented when it comes down to social media, consumer tradeshows, and even within travel distribution channels.”
Beyond using virtual reality as a market tool to entice visitors to the Caribbean, there are opportunities to create standalone virtual reality travel experiences that require no travel at all and generate income for a destination or local company. An example of a virtual reality travel experience outside the Caribbean is The Grand Canyon VR Experience which allows users to sit in a virtual motorized kayak theme-park-type ride through The Grand Canyon. Another is the Everest VR which provides an opportunity to summit Mount Everest without suffering from frostbite and the other harsh realities that come with climbing the Earth’s highest mountain above sea level.
Virtual reality travel experiences can be created for places that are difficult to reach, and also heritage sites under threat or those that already suffer from over-tourism. Also, virtual reality travel experiences can be created to provide access to historical sites that are damaged or no longer exist. For example, Plymouth, the former capital of Montserrat, is buried under volcanic ash. 4th Dymension, a local software company in Montserrat, is currently developing a virtual reality tour of Plymouth using hundreds of photos, videos, and maps. This could then be used by local guides to enhance their tour offering to the buried city or experienced by someone sitting at home in London or New York.
The opportunities are endless when it comes to using virtual reality in travel, and so destination marketing organizations in the Caribbean need to incorporate it into their marketing strategy as they move into more profitable tourism niches. Also, Caribbean governments need to invest some of the revenues generated from tourism in local schools to ensure that computer science and other technology classes are part of the curriculum. This, in turn, will create more entrepreneurs in the Caribbean who are using technology to create travel and tourism products, not all of which require people to visit the region.
These are but five areas for developing sustainable tourism in the Caribbean. All are interlinked but the most critical is increasing proactive measures to protect the environment as it ensures the survival of the region, not just for tourism. Investing in community tourism, embracing and showcasing Caribbean food along with investing in regional tourism is all about going next level. Investing in virtual tourism is the most disruptive and exciting (well at least for me) as there are numerous applications all helping to increase sustainable tourism in the Caribbean.