By Tony Fraser, writing from Port of Spain
“One of the world’s largest economic sectors, tourism, is especially well-placed to promote environmentally sustainable, green growth and our struggle against climate change through its relationship with energy.”
Ban Ki-moon on World Tourism Day
For the Caribbean, the most tourism-dependent region of the world, “sustainable tourism is no longer an option, but an even more pressing necessity.”
That stark verdict on the Caribbean tourism industry came from Carlos Vogeler, Americas regional director of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
He was speaking at the recent 14th annual conference of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation on Sustainable Tourism, which took place in Trinidad and Tobago.
The theme of the event was Keeping the Right Balance: Enhancing destination sustainability through products, partnerships and profitability.
It brought together tourism chiefs to discuss the huge shopping list of policies needed to ensure the long-term solid growth of Caribbean tourism, especially in eco-friendly and green travel.
Work in progress
As outlined by the UN, sustainable tourism takes in economic, environmental and social aspects of life on the planet.
But Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of External Affairs, economist Winston Dookeran, told the conference that this kind of eco-holiday industry was still a work in progress.
The aim, he said, was to develop a kind of tourism that was more than just an add-on product – something that would last into future generations and would be more in keeping with the environment and lifestyle of the Caribbean and its peoples.
Practical on-the-ground examples came from Trinidad-born Shrimatee Ojah-Maharaj, who has a key planning and development role in the Floridian city of St Petersburg.
She put forward St Pete, as it is known to locals, as a city that had pioneered green tourism – and earned large amounts of money in the process.
As well as spearheading major recycling and tree-planting programmes, the city has laid down more than 50 miles of bicycle trails.
Prof Patrick Watson, director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), said any concept of sustainable tourism had to include political governance.
He said: “It is politics which allocates resources and makes policy decisions about areas of focus in an economy and country.”
But how do Caribbean governments allocate money for sustainable resources when faced with so many other “life and death” calls on the public purse?
Caribbean Intelligence© asked Prof Watson whether Caribbean governments could afford this.
According to a study by SALISES, they need to invest hugely in a wide range of areas, including:
· curbing the mining of minerals to stop environmental pollution
· stopping deforestation and consequent soil erosion
· protecting underground water sources and courses
· preserving fish stocks in local waters and restricting the fishing rights of foreign vessels
· restricting vast cruise ships which soak up resources and threaten the eco-system of the sea.
As far as Prof Watson is concerned, investment in these kinds of policies is money well spent that will help boost tourism revenues.
“We found in our study a direct correlation between policies and expenditures aimed at the protection of bio-diversity and economic investment impacting positively on sustainable tourism,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
The UN’s figures on world tourism leave no room for doubt about the economic viability of the industry.
Back in 1950, only 25 million tourists travelled internationally.
Sixty years later, approximately one billion tourists travel the world and another five billion travel internally – that is, around their own parts of the world. This includes Caribbean nationals travelling around the region.
Tourists today travelling internally and externally generate more than US$1 trillion for countries visited.
According to the UNWTO, expenditure by tourists makes up 6% of international goods and services and 30% of exports.
The organisation estimates that tourism will grow at an annual average rate of 3.3% to the year 2030, when tourist numbers are forecast to hit 1.8 billion.
As the UNWTO’s Mr Vogeler said, “Not many industrial sectors can claim this level of average sustained growth.”
Visitor numbers up
Mr Vogeler said that the impact of the industry on the ground, and in a tourism-dependent region such as the Caribbean, was far more significant.
The gains include:
· job creation, directly and indirectly
· consumption of goods and services
· activity in the aviation industry
· upkeep of airports and associated services
· individual and corporate taxes paid to governments
· profits for the industry for reinvestment and capital formation.
He said that these profits put the onus on the Caribbean to preserve the environment and ensure tourism’s sustainability over time.
In the Caribbean, figures for 2012 indicate that some 25 million visitors came to regional states on a stay-over basis.
The secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, Hugh Riley, said the number of visitor arrivals was 5.4% higher than in the previous year.
However, he said tourists needed to be encouraged to spend more and sustainable tourism was one way of doing this.
He outlined the need for policy measures in the Caribbean to increase the flow of tourists.
He said tourism was too highly taxed, especially through levies on air travel internally and the much-denounced British Air Passenger Duty (APD).
Other speakers pointed out that it was a bit rich for Caribbean governments to demonise the UK over APD while maintaining their own air transport taxes.
The host Foreign Minister, Mr Dookeran, said his counterparts in the Caribbean and in Latin America had recently decided that something must be done about air transport links and development finance.
A meeting of foreign ministers will be held this month in Trinidad under the guidance of Colombia’s Maria Angela Holguin Cuellar.
The main topic on the agenda is the development of air links in the wider Caribbean and South America.
Trinidad and Tobago will also convene a meeting of development finance institutions from the hemisphere to, as Mr Dookeran explained, “spell out a programme for the recovery of our regional economy”.
Although Caribbean Tourism Organisation member countries approved the San Juan Accord on freeing up regional air travel as long ago as 2007, none of its provisions have been implemented so far.
· liberalising the regional air transport sector
· convening a forum for air transport and national security
· creating a single regional airspace
· easing the free movement of air passengers in the Caribbean
· harmonising visa policies between different countries
· streamlining customs and immigration procedures.
That amounts to a long wish-list for improving tourism in the Caribbean. Can talk at these meetings be turned into action?