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CLIMATE CHANGE AND TOURISM IN THE CARIBBEAN

 

By Larry Smith

 

Tuesday, April 8, 2008.

 

If you want to be inundated with acronyms and overwhelmed by obscurities, you should check out one of the zillion technical workshops that are going on around the Caribbean in any given year.

 

I went to one last week - it was a mind-numbing forum at the Wyndham Nassau Resort on how climate change will affect tourism in the region - staged by the Caribbean Regional Sustainable Tourism Development Programme, which is funded by the European Union.

 

More specifically, it was a workshop to discuss the results of "a technical assistance assignment to research the strategic implications for the Caribbean tourism sector of the international policy and market response to global warming." Got that?

 

To explain, we have to back up a bit. Scientists now have conclusive evidence that the world has been heating up ever since people began burning oil and coal in the 19th century. Burning these fossil fuels has released huge amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which trap heat in the atmosphere.

 

This global warming is changing the climate in ways that will have a serious effect on both human societies and natural ecosystems. And there is a whole cottage industry of regional and international bodies out there trying to find ways to help us deal with the impacts.

 

Are Ya Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot?


According to Dr Ulric Trotz, science advisor to the Caricom Climate Change Centre in Belize, minimum temperatures in our region have increased by 1.4 degrees centigrade since 1960, and trends through 2100 include higher global temperatures accompanied by sea level rise and more extreme weather pattens.

 

"The region is already vulnerable to climate variability and these changes will make it more so," he told the workshop last week. "A combination of sea level rise with more intense hurricanes means that storm surges will have a bigger impact, causing more coastal erosion. Within a decade we will see storm surges that can put entire coastal infrastructures under siege."

 

Without going into all the gory details, experts say the consequences of climate change for the Caribbean will include a fall in agricultural output, the movement of migratory fish out of the region, less fresh water, more infrastructure damage, the loss of insurance cover, a die-off of coral reefs, and more health issues like the spread of malaria and dengue fever. All of these have the potential to affect travel to the region.

 

And that's just the direct physical impact. As the workshop presenters pointed out, the adoption of international policies to address these issues will also create problems for us - in part, because the tourism industry itself is a big source of greenhouse gases. In fact, if global tourism was a country, it would be the fifth largest polluter - after the US, China, the European Union and Russia.

 

Last week's event was not the first regional workshop of its kind. There have been many - sponsored by the Europeans, the OAS, the UN, the Commonwealth Secretariat and others - going back to the mid-90s. But apart from the bureaucrats and NGO representatives who regularly attend, much of the information these meetings discuss is off the radar of the populations they want to educate.

 

Bahamas Will Be One of Worst Affected


This upsets Earlston McPhee, who is in charge of sustainable development at the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and who arranged for last week's workshop to be held in Nassau. "Creating more awareness of climate change issues is one of the most important things we can do in terms of sustainable tourism," he told Tough Call. "We are one of the countries that will be most affected, and people need to know that."

 

He was referring particularly to a recent World Bank study that said the Bahamas will be severely affected by anticipated sea level rise of three to 9 feet in this century. And even a small increase in sea level will significantly magnify the impact of storm surges.

 

Indications are that some fresh water marshes in the Bahamas have already become brackish, which may be attributed to rising sea levels. The current rate of increase is estimated globally at about 2 millimeters a year, but this could speed up. In fact, experts are looking for changes to fresh water bodies as the first signs of changing conditions. And it is known that wellfields on Andros and Grand Bahama have been badly affected by storm surge in the past five years

 

We are not alone in this - the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is already experiencing flooding and coastal erosion, while saltwater intrusion is affecting its drinking water and food production. Tuvalu could be inundated by 2050, and New Zealand has agreed to accept its citizens as refugees. In our case, a one-meter rise (about the same as our current tidal range) would impact 11 per cent of our land area, the World Bank report said.

 

"We have to ensure that our coastal wetlands are preserved and that buildings along the coast are sufficiently set back," Mr McPhee said. "We have to be proactive to adapt to the inevitable aspects of climate change and plan to mitigate the worst impacts, knowing that most Bahamians live on or near the coast.”

 

According to Dr Daniel Scott, a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "in 2007 the world's scientists spoke clearly with a united voice. Global warming is the defining challenge of our age and 79 per cent of people surveyed in 21 countries accept human-induced climate change as a reality and believe that action is necessary to address it."

 

He told the workshop that the impact of climate change on tourism can already be seen, whether in a lack of snow at ski resorts, or the bleaching of coral reefs and infrastructure damage along coastlines in the Caribbean. All the evidence says these impacts will only get worse over the next few decades.

 

"The risks could be similar to those associated with the great wars and economic depression of the early 20th century," Dr Scott warned. "The assumption that things are always better for the next generation is not historically accurate. Climate change could bring about a reversal of development."

 

Tourism Hot Spots Must Adapt


The Caribbean is one of several tourism hot spots around the world that are especially vulnerable to climate change, and experts say there is much work to be done to help decision-makers cope. "We don't have the luxury of time," Dr Scott said. "The next generation will have to deal with all the problems, so this is not a long term issue, and neither is adaptation an overnight process."

 

The research presented at the workshop was aimed at finding ways for the tourism sector to respond to these challenges. Led by Dr Murray Simpson, of Oxford University Centre for the Environment, researchers surveyed regional stakeholders, analysed aviation tourism and climate data, and looked at ways to reduce the region's carbon footprint.

 

Stakeholders estimate that a 25 per cent rise in travel costs will result in a 15 per cent decrease in demand, meaning we can expect fewer tourists in five to 10 years because of rising costs coupled with a deterioration of conditions in the region. But they also said this could be offset by higher value visitors who would be attracted by environmentally sustainable services.

 

People living in the Caribbean may be unfamiliar with the jargon of carbon markets because we get most of our news from the US, and the current administration there won't face the reality of climate change. But Europeans and Canadians do, and the likelihood is that whoever moves into the White House next January will take immediate steps to tackle global warming.

 

A Carbon-Neutral Destination


The Caribbean region's carbon intensity relative to GDP is currently the world's highest. But the workshop presenters say that becoming a carbon-neutral destination would give us a unique branding platform.

 

And they noted strong support among regional stakeholders for this to happen.

 

Policies to achieve it could include electric rental cars, energy-efficient technologies, incentives to reduce emissions and promote renewable energy, enforcing smart development policies, expanding eco-tourism programmes like Green Globe and Blue Flag, mandating environmentally sustainable construction, and promoting carbon offsetting.

 

Technical efficiency alone could reduce the region's carbon footprint by 36 per cent, while actually changing peoples' behaviour could result in an absolute reduction. Green Globe is an international programme that challenges companies, as well as communities, to improve their environmental standards over time. Blue Flag is a similar benchmarking programme for marinas and beaches.

 

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system seeks to transform the construction market by improving energy, water and materials use rather than simply building to code. At least one big construction project in Nassau, along with one or two small resorts in the out islands, is applying LEED standards.

 

Carbon offsetting is the act of paying for greenhouse gas emission reductions to take place elsewhere instead of cutting one's own emissions. One example of this involves compensation for the pollution caused by air travel. Aviation accounts for about 2 per cent of global carbon emissions, an amount that is rising by about 3.5% a year.

 

It works like this: passengers can visit the Caribbean Airlines web site, calculate flight emissions based on their destination, and neutralise them by contributing online to eco-friendly projects in developing countries. For example, the emissions produced by travel from London to Trinidad could be offset by a small donation to a renewable energy project in India. This is a good green marketing tool for tourism.

 

It All Boils Down to Common Sense


For many at the workshop, it all boiled down to common sense. There are obvious things we shouldn't do, such as destroying mangroves, or building hotels on the beach. We must factor these issues into national development planning, but the problem is that developers often ignore such advice, despite paying lip service to environmental concerns.

 

Bimini Bay Resort and the Crystal Palace Hotel (which hosted the workshop) spring instantly to mind.

Insurers can help to police this - by providing cover for smart development and penalties for bad.

 

In Britain, for example, people can't get insurance to build on a flood plain. But according to Dr Trotz, it is far more important to "build support for better government at the civil society level so the politicians will sit up and take notice. We have to make people understand what bad policy means to their livilihood and their children's livelihood."

 

There are signs of changing attitudes. At the recent Caricom heads of government meeting in Nassau, Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said the region's leaders would create a "sustainable economic commission on tourism" to improve cooperation in product development, service standards and eco-tourism marketing. It remains to be seen whether this will result in anything but more acronyms.

 

Tourism is the world's biggest businesses, involving almost a billion travellers a year, The Caribbean receives 12 million of those travellers and the Bahamas gets about a third of that total, but climate change can damage the region's attractiveness, which will have obvious economic consequences.

 

One of the chief influencing factors for modern travel is environmental awareness., and the message coming out of last week's workshop is that we should do all in our power to leverage that factor. Green tourism is a win, win policy for the region, no matter how you look at it.

 

 

 

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