Have you visited the Caribbean as a tourist? Taken a Caribbean cruise? Stayed at a Caribbean resort? Many Americans who are not of Caribbean ancestry think of the Caribbean first as a place to vacation in, or cruise to; it is one of the most popular venues to visit for sun, sand, and sea sports. According to Travel Market Report’s analysis of the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s data, “14.6 million American tourists visited the region” in 2022—over half of all visitors to the region.
Yet the Caribbean is also on the frontlines of climate change, and faces environmental damage caused by the very same tourism that contributes so much to local economies.
This quandary is is being addressed via advocacy for and the instituting of what’s known as “responsible tourism” and “ecotourism.”
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Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.
I’ve been to the Caribbean as a tourist, and have also spent time there simply staying with family and friends. Most of my experience in the region has not been particularly “touristy,” since I stayed in private homes with residents often dubbed “locals,” but I have stayed at resorts in both the Bahamas and Barbados, and once at a tourist hotel, El Convento, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, while attending research project meetings on the island. I’ve never been on a cruise ship, but did travel on a 48-foot yacht to go island hopping in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
I still remember watching thousands of people swarm into Old San Juan, in Puerto Rico, as cruise ships disgorged their passengers, as well as similar scenes in Bridgetown, Barbados. This was decades ago, and at the time, I didn’t think about the environmental or economic impact of my tourism, or others’, on host nations. It wasn’t until years later, when I was teaching courses on the Caribbean, that I became much more aware—and concerned.
It is easy to condemn the depredations of tourism, but the economic reality has to be faced. A Statistica report titled, “Caribbean countries or territories with the highest share of GDP generated by travel and tourism in 2021,” had Antigua and Barbuda topping the chart at 61%. The 2019 figures, recently analyzed in February by Landgeist, show an even greater dependency pre-pandemic: Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism industry provided 83.3% of their GDP.
Given this economic reality, it’s clear that tourism will continue to play a major role in the Caribbean. Major marketing campaigns and travel videos also will continue to draw eager and willing visitors to the “enchanted islands.”
Here’s an example from touropia, a very popular YouTube travel channel with over 1 million subscribers. It’s nearly a half-hour long, yet still has over 2 million views!
The other side of this coin: There are a host of issues confronting the Caribbean, and they aren’t going away.
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The International Institute for Environmental Studies has done a series of studies and offers online courses outlining some of the key issues for Small Island Developing States, such as this one from 2022.
Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are vulnerable to the environmental impacts of tourism, industrial development, urbanization and agriculture, as well as climate change. Island nations in the Caribbean are among the most vulnerable regions in the world to the effects of climate change, with more frequent and intense hurricanes being the most devastating example. Other environmental problems facing SIDS in the Caribbean include dwindling water resources, the effects of inadequate treatment of sewage, unsustainable tourism practices, overfishing, an over-reliance on non-renewable sources of energy, and an expanding range of vector borne diseases. Through a series of 13 on-line lectures by experts from academia and government agencies and by environmental consultants, course participants will learn about the environmental challenges faced by SIDS, and the solutions which can be applied to solving these problems. The geographic focus will be on SIDS in the Caribbean, but these concepts apply to SIDS all over the world.
Contributing Institutions and Organizations: University of the Virgin Islands (St. Croix), AKWATIX Consulting (Barbados), IWEco Program (St. Kitts and Nevis), Carleton University (Canada), University of West Indies-Mona (Jamaica), The Nature Conservancy (Caribbean), National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (USA), ES Caribbean, TOURISK Consulting and more.
One solution proffered by experts is “responsible tourism.” So what is it? Harold Godwin, director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership, wrote an overview back in 2014.
Responsible Tourism was defined in Cape Town in 2002 alongside the World Summit on Sustainable Development. This definition, the Cape Town Declaration is now widely accepted and was been adopted by the World Travel Market in 2007 for World Responsible Tourism Day.
Responsible Tourism is about "making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit." Responsible Tourism requires that operators, hoteliers, governments, local people and tourists take responsibility, take action to make tourism more sustainable.
The World Travel Market has adopted the Cape Town Declaration definition of Responsible Tourism for its World Responsible Tourism Day which encourages the industry to take responsibility for making tourism more sustainable and demonstrate their responsibility.
But what is the Cape Town Declaration’s definition? You can read the full declaration here, but here are the key bullets:
Having the following characteristics, Responsible Tourism:
- minimises negative economic, environmental, and social impacts;
- generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry;
- involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances;
- makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world's diversity;
- provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues;
- provides access for physically challenged people;
- and is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence
Goodwin lists these seven principles of responsible tourism in this video that references Kerala, India, but the principles absolutely apply to visitors to the Caribbean.
Relating directly to the Caribbean, the following hour-long lecture was given in 2022 by Tourisk president and sustainable tourism lecturer Dr. Edward W. (Ted) Manning.
He is the author of 21 books and over 100 articles on sustainable development, sustainable tourism, community development and environmental planning topics. He has worked in more than 40 countries on sustainable development, tourism and integrated planning projects, and run training programs on these topics for private sector and government managers.
For further exploration of the subject, I suggest reading “The Caring Entrepreneur: A Strategy for Sustainable Community-Based Tourism,” by Sylvester H. Clauzel.
This book is based on a combination of research and practical application of development models addressing how tourism may be sustained for the economic, social and ecological benefits of host nations. It draws on many of the foundational lessons from the implementation of the Saint Lucia Heritage Tourism Programme (1998-2005), a community-based tourism initiative that attempted to reshape tourism on the small Caribbean Island of Saint Lucia. It concludes that the mutual satisfaction of both visitors and the host country is critical for the achievement of sustainable tourism. It challenges the practice of organising tourism primarily around visitor expectations and treating benefits to the host nation as mere by-products of tourism. It advocates for a more participatory and integrated development planning model as well as institutional reforms if tourism is to be a successful development option for small island developing states. These institutional adjustments must include a major role for Governments to prioritise host nation benefits whilst ensuring optimal visitor satisfaction. Most importantly, it introduces the concept of the “caring entrepreneur” that represents a departure from investment driven by profit to investment driven by responsible corporate behaviour that gives equal weighting to the three pillars of sustainable development
Turks and Caicos has shifted to sustainable tourism.
“Ecotourism” is linked to sustainable tourism. The Travel Channel defines it in “Eco-Tourism in the Caribbean.”
Ecotourism has become a buzzword for resorts and lodges who want to cater to those interested in low-impact travel. But what, exactly, does ecotourism mean? The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines the term as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."
Emily Folk wrote about the downsides of ecotourism for The Ecologist in 2019.
With increased tourism comes increased pressure to develop areas and make them more inclusive and resort-like. Building more accommodation, businesses and amenities within these communities and destinations damages and destroys habitats. By damaging the local environment, you increase the pressure on native species
Increased competition for resources between invading tourist activity and indigenous populations — both locals and wildlife — means wildlife and certain ways of life disappear. In their place, these cultures and environments take on the same features and characteristics of previous popular sites.Indigenous cultures are distorted to consumer culture to keep tourists coming, which leads to the exploitation of resources and wildlife that's currently destroying destinations like the Bahamas and the Philippines.
Eco-tourism calls on vacationers to redefine what it means to take a vacation — not only where you go and how you get there, but also what you do while you're there.
I’ll close here, but I’m interested in hearing about your travel to the Caribbean, and your experiences with responsible and sustainable tourism.
Join me in the comments for more discussion, and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.