View of boats parked at the beach on Petit Bateau offshore island in Grenadines
CARIBBEAN CONFERENCES SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL

2019 Caribbean Sustainable Tourism Conference: 7 Key Takeaways

Twenty-four hours before the 2019 Caribbean Sustainable Tourism Conference was scheduled to launch – the first-ever international conference hosted in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – my colleagues and I were scattered inside a packed Massy Stores supermarket in Kingstown.

After a magnificent first day sailing around the Grenadines, our second day of tours was cut short. Tropical storm Dorian was headed our way, predicted to arrive at 1am. This was our last chance to shop for survival snacks before all non essential services would shut down at 6pm. Slipping among locals who already filled the aisles, we had but a few minutes to think of what to buy. What does one purchase when there may be no access to food for an unknown number of days? Carts filled with beer, rum, chips, lots of bananas, water… and more bananas, because the bread shelves were already emptied.

I’ll admit that at the time, inside Massy’s, we were in a sort of giddy daze that this storm was heading our way while on a media trip. It didn’t quite sink in until we returned to our respective rooms to find a care package and a letter from the hotel management.

After all, we’d gathered in St. Vincent to cover the state of sustainable tourism in the Caribbean. Mother Nature had chosen to remind us in real time just how much work we have ahead of us.

Clockwise: The beach at Beachcombers Hotel, Saint Vincent; fellow journalist pal Melissa Noel; shopping on Union Island during our day trip to the Grenadines; sailing to Palm Island; dinner and down time with colleagues the evening we were anticipating Dorian.

A table of 10 people dining seaside at Caribbean sustainable tourism conference 2019

In the end, we were lucky – and Grand Bahama and the Abacos were not.

Perhaps it was this reminder of our increased vulnerability to climate, which delayed the conference by a day, that gave the event a more palpable sense of urgency.

Thanks to a solid selection of topics and panel experts – representative of the important linkages among the private sector, international funding organizations, non profit organizations, indigenous leaders, governmental bodies and industries beyond tourism – we heard from key players working towards sustainability in the Caribbean.

From our host country’s renewable energy plans, detailed in this post, to the efforts under way to strengthen adventure and community-based tourism and alarming data on the challenges facing the most tourism-dependent region in the world, this conference was a much needed event that Dorian could not derail.  

Below are seven key takeaways from this illuminating gathering on sustainable tourism in the Caribbean – hosted at the Beachcombers Hotel on St. Vincent.


A. CLIMATE CHANGE: WHERE ARE WE TODAY?  

Minister Gonsalves speaking at caribbean sustainable tourism conference 2019

Saint Vincent and The Grenadines’ Minister of Finance, Economic Planning, Sustainable Development and Information Technology, Camillo Gonsalves, focused his presentation on giving us the cold, harsh facts of climate change.

What’s heading for us if the Caribbean tourism industry continues with no unified, concrete plan?

For starters, there are Caribbean destinations that are already losing a foot and a half of coastline a year, on the Atlantic side. Moreover, the future looks bleak if we do nothing: scientists have predicted a sea level rise of one meter by 2050.

Gonsalves explained that if that happened in the Caribbean – a sea level rise of one meter – this would result in up to 60% of tourist resorts at risk.

In addition, the region is facing the following – all of which are directly related to climate change: increased sea level rise, increased and intense hurricane activity, changes in rainfall patterns leading to drought or flooding, increased coastal erosion, coral bleaching, reduced fisheries activity, longer dry seasons, reduced access to fresh water, increases in mosquito and vector-borne disease, and declines in agriculture and in tourism.

As it gets warmer in other parts of the world, tourists might not have as much of a need to visit the Caribbean – what will we do then?

1. We need an action plan

Minister Gonsalves urges an industry-wide climate change plan now and a strategy, in partnership with governments and with communities. It’s high time we stopped relying on the sun, sea and sand – we have to get beyond that, he added.

“It baffles me that the industry as a whole, from state to private sector to community organizations, has not come together to discuss this as a single issue that has the potential to destroy all the hard work you’ve done in the sector and the benefits tourism brings to our countries.”

Greening initiatives at the conference: Gorgeous tote bags made from local straw by female artisans in Saint Vincent.

2. We need robust research into tourists’ attitudes towards climate change

Is it true that tourists are bothered by artificial coastal barriers at their resort? Do they understand why it’s necessary? I agree with Minister Gonsalves that visitors must be educated on climate change beyond saving the hotel laundry costs. It’s about digging deep and making them understand what’s happening to their favorite slice of paradise. It’s about letting them know the initiatives the hotel has taken: whether the use of solar power, the replanting of mangroves or the coastal barriers installed, for instance. Did you know that air-conditioning constitutes 50% of a hotel’s energy use, while laundry uses five percent?

“We have to educate tourists from the moment they walk in the door on what they can do […]: Don’t use unsafe sunscreen that damage coral reefs, or tell them this hotel uses recycled water and solar power which reduce environmental stresses.”

3. Hotels should do more

Ellsworth Dacon, Director of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Energy Unit, urged hotels to move towards renewable energy to build resilience against climate change effects: “Hotels should have their own energy policy and action plan, just like the government.” This means conducting energy audits, making staff and customers aware about energy conservation, and seeking advice on constructing energy efficient buildings – from the roof to the choice of paint colors.

Mr. Dacon presented this image at left – which really opens your eyes to how innovative the region needs to be going forward: a resort designed to capture rainwater off the roof, lined with solar panels, and using a special reflective white paint. The roof is also storm resilient. 

4. We need a different kind of education

Perhaps the most inspiring example of innovative action towards climate change effects in the Caribbean is the Richmond Vale Academy, in leeward Saint Vincent or in the lush, green northwest of the island.

Stina Herberg speaking at Caribbean Sustainable Tourism Conference 2019

Founder Stina Herberg is a Norwegian teacher by profession who moved to Saint Vincent 13 years ago. After experiencing a hurricane, she was inspired to set up a unique “other kind of school” where locals as well as students from around the world learn about pollution, renewable energy and climate change and ways to prepare for the latter.

The Academy’s current curriculum focuses on teaching students and the community about food and energy security and getting ready for climate change through 2021. One of its groundbreaking grant-funded projects, aside from the planting of hundreds of trees and mangroves in the area, trained 50 women in surrounding communities in organic gardening and polyculture, helping them set up a model organic garden at their home, complete with a water tank.

Marie Pierre, one of Richmond Vale Academy’s student grantees – standing in her thriving organic garden. Stay tuned for my interview of Marie.

We had a study tour scheduled to visit RVA, but threats of Dorian cancelled those plans. After connecting with her in person at the conference, I was able to arrange my own visit to Richmond Vale Academy on my last free day in St. Vincent. Led by teacher and community leader Selwyn Patterson, who also runs his own Rose Hall Cultural Development Organization and the Rose Hall Drummers, I toured the academy, enjoyed lunch and a great conversation with Stina and her team, and visited Selwyn’s Rose Hall village. I hope to share more on that illuminating day soon.

The facility also runs an ecotourism arm as part of their income generation – with lodging available on site, a dive school, hiking excursions and collaborative heritage experiences with the Rose Hall Cultural Development Organization.


B. CULTURAL HERITAGE: THE CARIBBEAN’S MOST UNTAPPED RESOURCE

From the conference’s opening performance by the Rose Hall Drummers to the indigenous tourism and community based tourism panels, the topic of cultural heritage and how to best incorporate it as part of a sustainable Caribbean tourism industry remained at the forefront of discussions.

L to R: Session on indigenous tourism; Members of the Rose Hall Drummers – including Rose Hall Cultural Development Organization leader Selwyn Patterson; Dr. Jerrol Thompson, CEO Medicinical Cannabis Authority; and Uwahnie Martinez owner of Palmento Grove Cultural Fishing Institute in Hopkins, Belize.

5. We need to harness the “power of culture”

Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations, Elizabeth Thompson critiqued Caribbean destinations’ fixation on arrival numbers. While that critique isn’t new, the way in which she framed it was key: the type of tourism we offer today has to respond to the demands being made by the consumer. The demand is for culture and immersion, as evidenced by the likes of AirBnB and AirBnB Experiences. The consumer wants to be out and about, trying everything like a local.

UN Ambassador Elizabeth Thompson speaking at Caribbean 2019 Sustainable Tourism Conference

Following that trend, Liz Thompson explained, enlarges the number of people who benefit and it will “result in a more equitable spread of wealth – not as some kind of trickle down haphazard benefit, but one in which our tourism product is based on national culture and conducted and pursued in national community.” 

“Our culture is our reality, and we must make it profitable.”

– H.E. Liz Thompson

She reminded that where such trickle down community initiatives – such as the popular weekly Oistin’s fish fry in Barbados – were not emerging quickly or spontaneously, then “such deliberate engineering is the responsibility of governments.”

6. We need to strengthen and educate on Community-Based Tourism (CBT)

The results of a robust study conducted by Compete Caribbean – a consortium of donors, including Canada and IDB, operating in 13 Caribbean countries – and Euromonitor International titled “What do visitors want and how much will they pay?” were revealed at the conference.

A combination of over 600 consumer surveys, in depth trade interviews in the Caribbean and in the US, including online focus groups led to surprising facts below on how much tourists are willing to pay for local experiences. The graphic at left shows they’d be willing to pay as much as US$300 per activity, from local tours to food walks and farm to table experiences.

Only 21% of respondents were familiar with CBT and 79% of US tourists would be interested in doing Caribbean-based tourism in the Caribbean once they became aware of the term. 10% of US tourists show a high level of interest and are looking to participate in CBT on their next trip to the Caribbean.  

Conclusions from the study were that these community-based tourism activities would be more interesting to tourists if you were to first attract them with the beach – as an add on activity once they are in-country. More CBT businesses are also being assisted to reach the market-ready phase.


I would return to Saint Vincent just to listen to the Rose Hall Drummers and experience their Rose Hall Community Tour.

7. Whose past and cultural fabric do Caribbean nations value today?

Prime Minister Gonsalves’ phenomenal speech is worth listening to in its entirety.

Beyond addressing SVG’s current socio-economic transformation and promising sustainable energy plans, he addressed the deeply rooted racially charged “tourism-is-only-for-White-people” sentiments among “the discordant few” in the Caribbean that must be dealt with if we are to move forward as a region and disrupt and innovate.

As Prime Minister Gonsalves noted, that’s why more jobs must be created to avoid the backlash against tourists the we’re now seeing in parts of Europe.

“Only a tiny minority of persons have not yet learned that the way to triump over the disabilities and the limitations and the legacy of underdevelopment from native genocide and the enslavement of African bodies is not to live in the past, but to use our knowledge of the past to rise and rise triumphantly in OUR own interests and to utilize what we have in our environment – its natural beauty, beaches and the like – to make a good living off of that, where we are inviting people to come and enjoy that with us.”

He also reminded the audience that we have moved from a society that once held the notion that “white or European cultural values are the only ones to be emulated.”

Whether or not that is true in practice at every level of Caribbean society is up for debate – but the fact that the Prime Minister put this topic out in such a public manner is encouraging for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and for other Caribbean destinations to examine the cultural values that are being elevated and voiced at all levels of tourism-related decision making.


C. THE GREEN FUTURE OF SAINT VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is at an exciting, critical point in its tourism expansion, particularly since the establishment of its Tourism Authority, the opening of its new international airport in 2017, the arrival of Marriott Hotels next year and the government’s bold move towards renewable energy – all indicating a period of “socio economic transformation” as the Prime Minister put it.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority’s CEO Glen Beache (center) with part of his team including US Marketing Officer Natasha Anderson (right).

The destination began to address its heavy dependence on fossil fuels and the need to move towards renewable energy when the Government adopted an Energy Policy as well as an Action Plan in 2010, with milestones to be achieved in short, medium and long-term timeframes.

Locals swimming at the Soufriere Dam, where one well was installed for the geothermal plant exploration.

For SVG, depending on fossil fuels as an island means it is highly vulnerable to climate change – it’s also currently ranked among the highest electricity rates in the world. Clean energy matters because, as Mr. Dacon explained, it plays huge role in sustainable tourism: it affects agriculture, fishing, employment services, and other areas. Not depending on petroleum imports for energy means resilience and price stability.

SVG’s plan is to move from about 15% renewable energy in 2010 to 75 % by 2022.

This year alone, up to EC$94,000,000 in grant funding has been allocated towards energy projects. Several of these are implemented, while more are currently underway. They include the Argyle International Airport with 5977 kWh solar panel systems installed, as well as several solar PV projects in the pipeline for the Grenadines – in Mayreau, Union Island and Bequia – where energy is currently 100 percent fossil fuel based. There are also plans to replace approximately 8,000 street lights with LED fixtures.

A game changer for Saint Vincent, however, could be the 10MW geothermal plant in La Soufriere, north windward of Saint Vincent, currently in the drilling phase. We got to visit the site and its project manager, who explained to us what this project could mean for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

The financial structure of this project is also as innovative as it gets: US$27 million consists of grants, and US$64 million in loans. It’s the first project ever done this way. If successful, it could serve as a model for other Caribbean destinations capable of producing geothermal energy. It will also mean that Saint Vincent and the Grenadines might surpass their renewable energy goal by 2022.

From its aggressive renewable energy projects to its community-led tourism activities, climate change initiatives and the first major hotel brand arriving next year, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is well positioned to serve as a model destination to follow for sustainable tourism development in the Caribbean today.


A renewed sense of urgency

Just like this conference, it will take collaboration and action to move towards a more sustainable kind of tourism in the Caribbean. Action from all players in the industry, including funding agencies, policy makers, tourism ministries, community tourism leaders or activists, and the media.

Slowly but surely, there are steps being taken. It was reassuring to observe first-hand some of the projects that are being implemented in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and learn about other initiatives around the Caribbean, such as a UN project in the DR to reduce plastic usage in resorts. I was particularly encouraged to see a larger discussion taking place on cultural heritage tourism – what I’ve been advocating and pushing for in my work over the last decade – and to hear from CBT training leaders, as well as the funding agencies supporting community tourism development projects.

Because as Minister Gonsalves says, we are at a critical junction in Caribbean tourism – facing a dying industry if climate change remains unaddressed, and we must do much more than merely hope for dumb luck that a hurricane won’t hit us and we live to see another day.


D. RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

For more reading on sustainable tourism in the Caribbean and climate change effects, the following resources came highly recommended during the conference.

1. CTO’s Tourism and Education Campaign website on climate resilience and sustainability, offering resources including a Caribbean climatic bulletin and a free online training course on sustainable tourism.

2. Globalised. Climatised. Stigmatized (2019). – A new book by Minister Camillo M. Gonsalves, available in print and ebook.

3. A 2010 UN report: Quantification and magnitude of losses and damages resulting from the impacts of climate change: Modelling the transformational impacts and costs of sea level rise in the Caribbean.


Lily on a swing next to the sea.

Do you think about the current climate change effects on your favorite Caribbean destinations? Is it informing your choice of hotels or the activities you choose? Sound off in the comments, here or on social media.


My gratitude goes to the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority for sponsoring my trip to cover this important conference and explore their incredible destination; and to the Caribbean Tourism Organization for their continuous support of the media. Stay tuned for more of my upcoming posts, videos, images and articles.

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