Conference ponders big issues

Representatives of government and private sector entities from throughout the Caribbean gathered at the most important eco-tourism conference of the year. The 14th annual Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development took place in Port of Spain, Trinidad from 22 to 25 April and featured a host of discussions about how the Caribbean region could step up to the mark in this increasingly vital arena.  

 

There were no representatives of the Cayman Islands at the Hyatt Regency-based event, which began with a challenge set down by Winston Dookeran, acting prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. 

Dookeran said that the onus was on participants to use the conference to find ways in which the region could develop sustainable measures to the backdrop of the continuing economic difficulties experienced worldwide. 

He did, however, point out that tourism was resilient, which was both a blessing and a challenge in itself. 

“This coupled with its capacity to respond and adjust to a changing environment has made the industry one which every region of the world is going after,” Dookeran noted. 

The conference title was Keeping the Right Balance: Enhancing Destination Sustainability through products, partnerships, profitability and the keynote speech was given by Carlos Vogeler, regional director for the Americas, United Nations World Tourism Organisation. 

Vogeler said that 2012 had been a difficult year in which economic growth had slowed down and uncertainty picked up. Instability continued to affect consumption and impact source markets, he said. According to International Labour Organization figures, he explained, there were 200 million people unemployed and there was a need to create 600 million new jobs over the next decade in order to sustain economic growth and maintain social stability. 

The United Nations representative further said that the world was more globalised than ever, “a complex, interlocking and interdependent network, across which flows of goods, capital, ideas, information and now people, move faster than ever before.” 

He named three forces that drove this globalisation. 

They were information technology and telecommunications which has transformed information processing and communication; the Age of Mobility with people travelling more than ever both within and across borders; and travel and tourism. 

“[This is a] mega-trend of globalisation at play in this new world, which often goes unnoticed, despite the fact that it involves a growing global population and, if disrupted, could turn around a good part of the evolution accomplished[…],” he said 

“A sector, which in these challenging times, emerges, just as technology and mobility, as a major driver of our new socio-economic model.” 

Tourism’s impact was noted in that almost half the 1 billion international tourist arrivals were in emerging or developing economies. 

“Without concerns for sustainability, tourism can develop in ways that may have detrimental impacts: causing damage to the environment; depleting scarce natural resources; disrupting social structures and cultural values; and even precipitating the exploitation of human beings,” cautioned Vogeler. 

“It is against this background that we need to talk about ethics, about responsibility, about sustainability. A tourism sector that does not have an ethical basis is out of touch with the needs and the challenges of our times.” 

 

Fragile industry  

Stephen Cadiz, minister of tourism for the host country, said that the theme of the event struck ‘at the very basis of what is a fragile industry.’ 

“Countries that have chosen tourism development as one of the main pillars for their economic development should by now have come to terms with their own vulnerability. Not only is the industry fragile, but it has also ripple effects on all other sectors of the economy,” opined Cadiz. 

The conference was arranged by the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Chairman of the public sector body is Beverly Nicholson-Doty, who called the conference ‘one of the most important on the region’s tourism calendar.’ 

“Devoting resources to develop a sustainable tourism industry for today and the future has a very strong potential for a high return on investment. This is especially true for a region like ours – rich in natural resources & cultural heritage. Other regions with few natural attractions have profited from sustainable management and conservation of their resources,” she said. 

“The Caribbean is blessed with natural beauty – rainforests, beaches coral reefs, vistas, botanical gardens and rivers – there is no shortage of natural wonders. Our God-given natural bounty, indeed, is the basis of our thriving tourism industry. As one of the most tourism dependent regions in the world, it is crucial to ensure our constituents fully understand the preservation of these valuable resources will determine our success in the future.” 

Discerning travellers were seeking a sense of the place, which Nicholson-Doty explained was a term which encompasses how a destination cares for its environment and for its people. Travellers felt that the quality of their stay is linked to a destination’s commitment to sustainable tourism. 

“Increasingly, travellers are specifically seeking out these experiences, and we must make a commitment to preserve our environment. Resources must be allocated to both the preservation of our natural resources and the development of A cutting edge hospitality sector driven by high levels of service excellence in order to provide a well-rounded visitor experience. 

“We have to pay close attention because it is our very success which can threaten our most valuable assets, and industry specialists tell us visitors are becoming increasingly aware of the potential negative impact of tourism on the natural beauty, cultural and historical offerings of a destination if not managed well. They want to feel their visit contributes to the conservation and enhancement of a destination’s environment, culture, health and general well-being,” she noted. 

She defined sustainability as more than just preserving the environment, but also ‘the preservation of a people’s culture and heritage.’ 

“The sensitive planning of responsible tourism is no longer just a feelgood activity but an essential component of a sound economic development strategy. These elements must be woven into the fabric of the total visitor experience and into the quality of lives for those who call the region home,” concluded the chairman. 

“Sustainable tourism is good tourism policy. It is good for the people of our nations, it is good for the visitor experience, and it is good for business and local communities. Indeed, it is now a fact that we can earn green by being green.” 

Discussions continued with a series of presentations, seminars and speeches whilst delegates also took the opportunity to visit various sustainable tourism sites and projects throughout Trinidad and Tobago. 

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