Good for us, better for all.
Such was the underlying message from the Caribbean Tourism Organization during the 2017 Climate Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum, held in St. Kitts and Nevis from Dec. 12-13. The forum, (originally scheduled for September, but rescheduled due to hurricanes Irma and Maria) comes at a particularly crucial time, after the United Nations General Assembly declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
This year, 120 international delegates and members of the media, alongside 31 speakers, came together over a two-day period to discuss imperative information regarding the impending damage and destruction that climate change can, and will continue to, bring to the Caribbean islands and the communities there, if sustainable practices are not enacted immediately.
“A year ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2017 to be the International Year for Sustainable Tourism Development and the aim was to support a change in policies, business practices and consumer behaviour towards a more sustainable tourism sector that can contribute effectively to the sustainable development goals,” said Hugh Riley, secretary general and CEO, the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “As we approach the end of 2017, we trust that the world’s, and our region’s, focus on sustainable development will not wane, but rather, the information be gathered, and the hard lessons be learned to be heeded and built upon. In these closing weeks of 2017, given all that we have encountered as a region and as a tourism industry, there is no better time than now to have a conference that is focused on climate change and sustainable development.”
Hugh Riley, secretary general and CEO, the Caribbean Tourism Organization spaks at the Climate Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum in St. Kitts.
What is sustainable development?
Sustainable tourism, or responsible tourism can have many different definitions, but the term boils down to respecting local natural resources and making educated buying decisions, or engaging in environmentally-friendly behaviours while visiting a destination as a tourist.
“In all probability, some [definitions] will encompass the notion of balancing the enjoyment and benefits of today’s assets, against the duty that we all have to ensure their ability for future generations,” Riley said.
Many Caribbean countries are already taking the necessary steps, he explained, implementing more sustainable practices throughout their respective tourism sectors in order to reduce impact to the environment. The sheer volume of enhanced aircraft operations, cruise passengers, and international visitors takes a toll on any destination, and as a region that is all too familiar with devastation caused by natural disaster, now more than ever, sustainable tourism is crucial as the Caribbean continues to recover and rebuild.
A cruise ship sits docked in St. Kitts and Nevis.
“We recognize that keeping that right balance is multi-faceted," Riley said, "(and) as the tourism development agency for the Caribbean, we at the CTO know very well that every day, our member countries are making decisions about how many more visitors they are able to attract, how many more aircraft we can possibly accommodate, how much more profitable our tourism business can be, how many more cruise ships can be in St. Kitts, because if we aren’t making profits, we aren’t able to feed or house our populations, or deliver that experience our visitors expect.”
Riley continued: “But we also know, that harmful emissions contribute to the degradation of our planet, and that the more we do as a global industry to build our tourism numbers, the harder we must work to mitigate the effects of those larger numbers. In the Caribbean, we also know that decreasing our dependency on traditional sources of energy, and paying serious attention to the use of renewable energy sources is imperative if we are to stay competitive. One of the goals of all of our countries is to create a carbon-neutral environment, a space in which we as a Caribbean region, can lead the world in demonstrating how to reduce our carbon footprint. Reducing that carbon footprint doesn’t mean stopping the planes from coming. What it does mean is finding creative ways to engage in responsible tourism; this has to be part of the example that the Caribbean sets for the rest of the world to follow.”
“For many countries around the globe, particularly for the Caribbean, tourism is the main driver in which economies and livelihoods depend,” added Carlene Henry-Morton, permanent secretary, Ministry of Tourism, St. Kitts and Nevis. “Following the closure of the sugar industry, and the shift from mono-crop agriculture in 2005, our national adaptation strategy has marked the tourism sector as the primary avenue through which we can transform and build a resilient economy, and we’ve been consistently putting mechanisms in place to do so in a responsible and sustainable manner.”
Travel and tourism continues to be a market that is growing at a competitive pace. The contributions made from the world’s tourism sector encompassed $7.2 trillion in 2015, representing nearly 10 per cent of the entire global economy. From an economical standpoint, that number represents 284 million jobs, which equates to one in 11 jobs worldwide being in the travel and tourism sector.
Climate change: growth and development hindered
In St. Kitts and Nevis, the direct effects of climate change are beginning to take shape more and more each day. The country has been experiencing droughts since 2015, a phenomenon that as Henry-Morton explained, the island has not seen in at least 50 years.
“We’re located in a fragile hurricane zone which is imperatively prone to natural disasters, now exacerbated by climate change,” Henry-Morton said. “Detailed climate modelling projections for St. Kitts and Nevis have predicted an increase in our average atmospheric temperature, reduced average annual rainfall, increased sea surface temperatures, and the potential for increased frequency and intensity for tropical storms. These pose a serious threat to the development gains we are trying to build and capitalize on, in public health, housing, agriculture, tourism, and beyond.”
When not properly managed, tourism-related activities feed and nourish climate change. The ample use of water used by showering, excessive laundry use, and pools in major hotel chains, for example, can severely impact a nation’s dependence on its own natural resources in the hotter, dry season, which is when most travellers flock to the Caribbean. A small island, many other neighbouring islands can be seen from St. Kitts and Nevis, such as Saba, the smallest municipality of the Netherlands in the Caribbean.
“Tourism is unique in the number of lives and sectors it touches: agriculture, retail, accomodation, construction, attractions, entertainment, transportation, and the list goes on,” Henry-Morton explained. “Our global efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of the diverse activities that make up tourism will help us alleviate climate change, but we must work together, across economic sectors and regional boundaries, to be coordinated with and integrated into existing policies of socioeconomic development and environmental conservation so we can facilitate both sustainable development, and sustainable tourism.”
Caribbean climate change: what does it look like?
Around the world, melting polar ice caps, starving polar bears, and massive drought worldwide alert us to the fact that despite what some skeptics might suggest, climate change is real, and the planet is warming at a rapid rate. But what does climate change look like in the Caribbean, where the weather is usually always hot, and a rainy season blesses the islands with lush fruit harvests and fertile ground?
As Henry-Morton points out, the biggest indication of climate change in the Caribbean starts with coastal erosion - a major problem, given that the majority of tourists come for the white, sandy beaches.
“The coastal regions and our prime beach regions are affected by rising sea levels,” Henry-Morton explained. “About three years ago, our beach [in St. Kitts] at the Strip, one of our popular tourist spots, had to be replenished, costing the country millions of dollars, and in just two years, it’s once again experiencing serious depletion, and so are other beaches nearby. Our coral reef and biodiversity are being adversely affected, hampering our tourism product, and oceans at large.”
Permanent secretary Carlene Henry-Morton, St. Kitts Ministry of Tourism, takes the stage at the CTO's Climate Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum.
The severe droughts that St. Kitts has been experiencing since 2015 has meant introducing water rationing on the island as well as restrictions on the number of cruise ships calling in the destination. The country has seen a drop in local agriculture crops as well.
“These are just a few of the main challenges we experience in St. Kitts. Added to that, we are always just one storm away from critical damage to our infrastructure. The Government of St. Kitts is pursuing a dual approach through cross-sector development by one, building resilience and security into our existing infrastructure and two, implementing fundamental systemic change in our institutions and approaches to traditional activities such as tourism and agriculture.”
Hard lessons have been learned
Located in a hurricane zone, St. Kitts has had its share of threatening tropical storms over the years, including Category 4 storms Hurricane Luis in 1995; Hurricane Georges in 1998; Hurricane Lenny in 1999; and, most recently, bearing witness to the havoc brought onto surrounding Caribbean nations by two Category 5 storms, weeks apart, Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Gazing out over the Caribbean Sea from the Belle Mont Farm, where PAX stayed for the duration of the CTO’s conference, one was able to spot neighbouring Caribbean islands including St. Eustachius and even Antigua, early in the morning when the horizon was clear. The talk amongst local staff and fellow journalists was echoed all around: seeing the proximity of the islands first-hand, it truly was a blessing that in the wake of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, St. Kitts was spared, while just a few hundred kilometres away, entire islands were devastated.
Secretay general and CEO Hugh Riley of the Caribbean Tourism Organization presents at the Climate Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum.
Tourism activity and climate change: a growing link
While travellers don't deliberately set out to negatively affect the destinations they visit, mass tourism brings about a whole host of underlying factors which contribute to climate change, such as increased pollution from large aircraft and cruise ships, among other influencers.
“Our very existence and the viability of our economies, and safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable states demand a global response to climate change,” Henry-Morton said. “This must be our imperative: we must fundamentally change the way we manage tourism, and as a global community, we must continue to explore climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience programs that will protect our valuable resources from disaster for the future - we must demonstrate the collective will and resolve to carefully examine how we as destinations do business with our private and public sector partners, and make sure that every transaction, and every decision, contains the safeguards needed to protect our natural, social, and economic interests.”
Members of the Caribbean Tourism Organization in attendance at this year's Climate Smart Sustinable Tourism Forum.
As more and more people continue to travel, it’s becoming evident that tourism will always be around, and dismissing its activities is not the solution to mitigate climate change.
“Tourism cannot be removed from the global response to climate change,” Henry-Morton said. “The sector must be transparent and it must be coherent and it cannot forget the relationship between tourism and climate change both as its victim and contributor.”
“Above all else, we must work together on big-picture strategies, and regional integration to change the game of tourism for the future,” Henry-Morton said. “For too long, our destination communities and our natural resources have been perilously on the losing side of the equation. We need to fortify our structures to systematically take back control of our own destiny.”