In Antigua and Barbuda, tourism planners are exploring eco-friendly accommodations like ‘glamping’ – luxury campsites with low impact on beaches.

In Puerto Rico, hoteliers are swapping contingency plans to improve hurricane and disaster response.

Across the region, tourism stakeholders are grappling with the reality of climate change and the threat it poses to the region’s hospitality sector.

While the Caribbean has long been versed in storm and disaster recovery, many destinations are realising that they can no longer settle for ‘business as usual’.

Sea-level rise, diminishing reefs and other signs of climate change are already making their mark on the region.

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For islanders, the goal has now become resilience – in other words, building tourism models that are both adaptive and quick to rebuild.

The Cayman Compass spoke with tourism officials from across the region during January’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace in Nassau, Bahamas. They shared some of the measures their islands have taken to adapt and respond to climate threats.

‘First climate-resilient nation’

In Dominica, ‘resilience’ became a national priority after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

While the storm dealt damage valued at around 200% of the island’s GDP, the destination is now “open for business”, said Tourism Minister Denise Charles.

Denise Charles

The quick recovery was facilitated in part by international financing, a citizenship-by-investment programme, and the nation’s resolve to rebuild smarter.

“Our prime minister, Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit, made a plea for us at the United Nations, and we vowed to become the first climate-resilient nation,” Charles said.

She described resilience as the ability to return to life as normal, post disaster. That means returning utilities, transportation and public services to working order as quickly as possible.

For tourism to get back on track, those basic needs must be met.

“You will see now that a lot of buildings are being built, but we’re installing solar panels. We’re also heavily into geothermal energy,” Charles said.

“Once a hurricane hits, people [will] have access to basic utilities.”

The island is also reviewing its building codes and the types of construction projects that get the green light. Beyond commercial properties, Dominica aims for private homes to be built to hurricane strength as well.

“So, most of our homes will become like a hurricane shelter technically,” Charles said.

Eco-friendly tourism

For Antigua and Barbuda, tourism minister Charles Fernandez said the environmental footprint of new construction projects in now a top consideration.

“The projects that we have signed onto will be very much dependent on the environmental impact assessment,” Fernandez said.

“In the ‘80s, someone would come and say, I want to build on the shore here and [you would] start. That is no longer possible. It’s no longer practical or advisable.”

To reduce negative impacts, such as erosion on beaches, authorities are pushing for lower-impact projects and greater building setbacks from the high-water mark.

“We’re looking to encourage in some cases ‘glamping’ rather than building concrete structures all over the place,” Fernandez said.

The recently opened Wild Lotus Camp, for example, offers a beachfront alternative to luxury hotels.

Guests instead sleep in high-end tents, located directly in front of turquoise waters.

Eco-friendly tourism projects have coincided with other environmental initiatives such as bans on single-use plastics and spearfishing.

Fernandez said coral protection is also a high priority.
The islands are working to mark their reefs, for example, to prevent yachts from dropping their anchors in the wrong spots.

“We’re doing whatever we can to protect the reefs, protect our ocean,” he said.

“Antigua and Barbuda has the largest ocean footprint of all the islands in the Caribbean because we are spread out. So, we have a lot to protect.”

Funding in Overseas Territories

Beyond local regulations, the support of international partners is often vital for island jurisdictions to take on the massive costs of infrastructure investment and disaster recovery.

For British Overseas Territories, the UK is a logical first stop for requesting assistance.

In 2017, when Hurricane Irma hit Anguilla, where no official building codes exist, the new UK-appointed governor, Tim Foy, had only been in the jurisdiction for around two weeks.

But Tourism Minister Cardigan Connor said the governor being on the ground during Irma helped the territory get back on track more rapidly.

“The fact that he was there only 13 days before Irma, he didn’t have much of a chance even to get his feet wet,” Connor said.

“But what I would say of the governor, who represents the British in Anguilla, was that we were able to get electricity islandwide before Christmas, and that was three months before it was expected.”

Connor attributes help from the UK, including a £60 million grant for rebuilding, as a major factor in the island’s recovery.

In another British Overseas Territory, however, local officials are less quick to comment on the UK’s role in disaster response.

“There’s a little bit of politics in that question,” said Pamela Ewing of the Turks and Caicos Tourist Board.

The island chain was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

While Ewing said the territory was quick to recover, she steered clear of commenting on the UK’s part in that process.

“I will say that we were able to work with our hotel partners very well to get back on stream,” she said.

As in many destinations, TCI officials praise their private sector for many of the strides made. Hoteliers, for example, were able to come together to share resources and get their businesses back on track.

“We were lucky to be back up and running very quickly,” Ewing said.

In the US territory of Puerto Rico as well, tourism officials have turned to the private sector. Between hurricanes and earthquakes, Puerto Ricans practically hold a PhD in disaster planning and recovery, said Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico.

“There is a sphere of collaboration and cooperation within Puerto Rico’s private sector that transcends anything I’ve seen. Instinctively, the businesses look out for each other,” Dean said.

“That’s always the case. I’m not talking about just a phone call. I’m talking about hotels sending bedding and supplies to other hotels.”

On a business level, he said there have been significant improvements to contingency plans in recent years.

Many of those improvements have been the result of collaboration.

Following recent earthquakes, for example, Dean witnessed hoteliers swapping insights on how their response plans had unfolded.

“They were already talking about what worked and what didn’t in the plan. This wasn’t a planned meeting. It was instinctive,” he said.

“Planning is ongoing. It’s never finished. You always want to look at what can be improved and enhanced.”

Culture of resilience

The ability of hurricane-affected islands to return to their day-to-day operations has been encouraging for Dominic Fedee, Saint Lucia’s minister of tourism and chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

“It shows that while our islands confront significant vulnerability, we are also very resilient and we can come back strong, come back bigger, come back better,” Fedee said.

Dominic Fedee

In 2019, 22 of 26 destinations that report to the CTO indicated tourism growth for the year.

One of those destinations was the Bahamas, which suffered its worst hurricane on record, Dorian, in September 2019. In fact, the Bahamas reported its strongest tourism numbers on record that year with 7.2 million arrivals.

Fedee said a key factor to keep tourism flowing after a disaster is messaging. In addition to providing for basic needs and tending to the immediate aftermath, destinations must also communicate with future guests.

“The messaging that comes sometimes from media can give the impression that an entire destination is down or can give the impression that an entire region is down,” Fedee said.

“So, we have been discussing how do we make sure we give customers quality information, factual information as it pertains to the geography of the Caribbean.”

Just as the region shares common environmental concerns, its reputation is also intertwined. Guests from the US or Canada generally do not understand Caribbean geography, commented Cayman Islands Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell, also speaking from Nassau.

When a major event hits one island, guests may not grasp that other destinations were unaffected.

The common struggles across the region, from infrastructure to marketing, indicate a need for greater collaboration.

“It’s a conversation that needs to be talked about at a regional level and driven to a global level because the independent countries usually have one economic pillar, and that’s tourism,” Kirkconnell said.

“So, just thinking about what happens with your tourism product when you get hit with a Category 5 {hurricane]makes you realise that certain parts of that product are going to come back quicker – an example being for us in Cayman, when Ivan hit, the first part of our tourism to come back was the cruise business.

“The point is that we need … not put all of our eggs in one basket. We have to have the flexibility to protect the people of the country.”

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