Tourism sustainability and the future for destinations at SOTIC 2023

by W. Andrew Powell
Caribbean Tourism Organization's State of the Industry Conference

Sustainability and eco-tourism are top of mind at the Caribbean Tourism Organization‘s State of the Industry Conference (SOTIC) this week in Turks and Caicos.

Destinations and industry experts are talking extensively about their plans to support green initiatives, led during the first day of panels with the host country of Turks and Caicos.

“Invest, innovate, inspire: a new model for Caribbean tourism,” Washington Misick, Premier of Turks and Caicos said during the opening address. “What is the old model? Someone said it’s ‘discover, explore, and exploit,’ which will ultimately lead to decline and the tourism poverty trap, as witnessed in many destinations across the world.”

“The Caribbean is naturally inspiring,” he said. “The global market in tourism considers the Caribbean as a premium destination, with a proven track record. Its diverse physical and cultural characteristics, from oceanscapes, jungles, and everywhere in between, together with its people and, as we say in the Turks and Caicos, forged and blended with multiplicity of race and creed and tongue.”

Misick suggested that the future in the Caribbean depends on countries having a new, cohesive plan.

“We must work together to end extractive tourism by having a unified investment policy without which we will increase the cost of supporting tourism without the benefits.”

“Tourism is about people,” Misick continued. “It’s about place, and it’s also about profit, so fostering a successful tourism and innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem requires connecting all stakeholders to collaborate on opportunities and prioritize capacity building in tourism and technology. [The] Turks and Caicos model–the new model that we see for ourselves–is based on the sustainable triangle of economic, social, and environmental principles.”

And as the Premier admitted, there’s work to do across every island.

“We are facing a situation at the moment in Providenciales–unless we intervene in the marketplace and come up with policies that would focus on sustainability–we face the potential of experiencing overtourism in Providenciales within the next ten years, and that would be a race to the bottom.”

“So for those and other reasons, it was very important that we focus on the people aspect of tourism.”

Sustainable food, practices, and imports

Como Parrot Cay, Turks and Caicos

During the panel on investment trends and tourism growth with ministers from Turks and Caicos, Cayman Islands, and St. Kitts, sustainability was also a big discussion point for all three ministers.

“Sustainability has to do with the sustainability of your whole economy, upon which the guests are a part, of and their importance to the country,” Honourable Kenneth Bryan, Minister for Tourism & Ports, Cayman Islands, said during the panel.

“So the food that we import to feed our guests, we have to do that in a sustainable way.”

“There’s the social impact, the economic impact, and obviously the environmental impact, so all of them have to work hand-in-hand together to ensure that we are sustainable and we have to take those factors into consideration whenever we’re making any decision on growth, on redevelopment, new products. It’s a way of life, really.”

“I think three, four years from now, we’re no longer going to be talking about sustainable tourism. It’s going to be the new tourism because that’s what is going to be expected.” I was just talking to an amazing person from Sint Maarten earlier, was talking about small island states and what can they do?”

His solution, for destinations that are unsure about eco-tourism is to think about all the elements that they need. “It’s about being considerate to your decisions and thinking about your effects on the future,” Bryan said. “The way you import plastics, how you burn fuel, whether you do manufacturing, can you do it in a cleaner way? Because sustainability is about making sure that earth is still here 50 years from now.”

What comes next in green and sustainable tourism?

Doug Lansky, Travel and Tourism Speaker
Doug Lansky, Travel and Tourism Speaker

During keynote presenter Doug Lansky’s presentation, he shared a hypothetical video for the future where plastics and ocean-harming sunscreens are banned from entering a country like Turks and Caicos. The thought experiment led into a conversation about rethinking tourism, strategies, and the way destinations think about guest experiences.

“Someone’s got to keep their eye on the big picture,” Lansky said, pointing to management organizations as one solution to manage over tourism, in particular.

There are also less obvious challenges. One study that he found showed that 74% of people polled wanted more sustainability in travel, but many also didn’t know exactly what it really meant. That’s a major hurdle over the coming years.

“We’re not going to solve this tomorrow,” Lansky said, but there has to be a goal for hotels, airlines, destinations, and travellers overall.

Empowering destinations and properties to support sustainable and eco-friendly initiatives has rewards, too. Lansky pointed out that eco-friendly hotels get a lot of press coverage, and there’s a feel-good quality to staying at a hotel that’s greener than others at a destination.

In particular he mentioned Bucuti & Tara Beach, that calls itself “the Caribbean’s first and only certified Carbon Neutral Resort,” and ranks at the very top of properties in Aruba. Their dedication to green and eco-conscious initiatives has been rewarded by guests.

Across many hotels though, Lansky said, “you still see things from the era behind, where there’s plastic bottles, and plastic cups, and you really need to be a detective and snoop around and root out some of those archaic practices.”

Lansky wonders if some hotels and resorts even know how much they need to change.

“There’s a Swedish expression called ‘hemmablind,’ which means home blind. It’s when you just don’t see the problems around you anymore, but I’ll bet that almost every hotel has a bunch of those.”

Starting small, like prohibiting plastic straws, has an impact, but there’s larger work to focus on.

“Something like changing out all the plumbing because of leaking pipes; it’s not very sexy, and it costs a fortune… but it’s a big deal.”

“You need best practice leaders; someone who’s really doing it and go to number one on TripAdvisor and have all the other hoteliers going, ‘What’s that guy doing?’ I wanted that video to kind of light a fire under some people and go, ‘Yeah, that’s doable. It’s very easy. Why aren’t we doing that?'”

And the award goes to…

The Shore Club, Turks and Caicos
The Shore Club, Turks and Caicos

Perhaps that’s where Justin Cooke, Executive Vice-President, World Travel Awards, can help recognize and promote best practice leaders.

“On World Tourism Day 2023 we announced the launch of the 2024 World Travel Sustainability Awards, which will be in Belize for the inaugural year.”

“We’ve created the awards to educate, inspire, and recognize the people around the world who are setting the bar and enabling everybody else to then reach that bar by giving practical, insightful advice, and vision to get them to where we all need to be.”

“We’ve always been about recognizing and celebrating excellence. Now what we’re about is recognizing and celebrating excellence and sustainability.”

“And stay tuned for a number of other very, very exciting updates as we build out this very important addition to travel industry calendars.”

Pictured at the top of the story: Tremmaine Harvey, moderator; Hon. Marsha T. Henderson, Minister of Tourism, Civil Aviation, Employment & Labour, International Transport, and Urban Development, St. Kitts; Hon. Kenneth Bryan, Minister for Tourism & Ports, Cayman Islands, CTO Chairman; Hon. E. Jay Saunders, Deputy Premier, Minister of Finance, Investment & Trade, Turks & Caicos Islands.

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