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Much of the talk at the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s recent Climate-Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum in St. Kitts was, as advertised, about climate change, but it was more than that. Experts also talked about strategies towards sustainability that, regardless of whether or not they affect weather patterns, are critical to the Caribbean travel industry’s bottom line, and maybe even its survival. That got my attention, so here are a few of the many takeaways:

Resilience to Hurricanes
“We haven’t had more hurricanes, but we are having more intense ones,” said Kolijn Danker of environmental engineering company CBCL. “Hurricanes will remain the single greatest threat to the Caribbean.” Tricia Greaux of the St. Kitts Department of Marine Resources added that the first Category 5 hurricane in recorded history didn’t even show up in her part of the world until 1980.

The Caribbean islands may not have the power to reverse the increasing frequency of disastrous storms, but speakers argued that Caribbean people and economies can still be more resilient. “Resilience”—that’s a word I heard quite a bit. But how to be resilient in the face of Category 5 hurricanes?

Dankers showed overhead photos of beach erosion as a result of this fall’s hurricanes, but the most interesting detail was a section of a beach that one hotel had planted with beach grasses. That part of the beach had sand after the storm. The resort had been saving money on water bills because sea grasses need less watering than conventional grass. And after the hurricane, the ability of the resort to retain its beach helped it to reopen sooner than several other resorts on that beach. So expect more beachfront hotels to be planting native grasses in the sand—and expect not to wait for months before you can book clients into those resorts again.

The Flip Side of Hurricanes: Drought
“The average tourist can use up to ten times as much water per day as a resident, and to make matters worse, high season for Caribbean travel is winter, the dry season,” said Dr. Halla Sahely, a consultant for St. Kitts’ Caribbean Water & Wastewater Association. Carlene Henry-Morton of the St. Kitts Ministry of Tourism added that her country has experienced drought conditions since 2015, the first time this has happened in 50 years. That’s why St. Kitts had to refuse water to cruise ships in 2016. (Imagine if yet more islands had to withhold water from cruise ships!) Another panelist pointed out that drought also means higher prices for the local ingredients visitors want on their dinner plates. None of this is good for tourism.

Addressing this “water-tourism nexus,” Dr. Sahely emphasized the need to use water more efficiently, because “water loss in most islands is as high as 60 percent because of leaky pipes, overflowing reservoirs, improper metering, evaporation, etc.” Instead of asking governments to invest billions upfront in new desalination plants, she urged hotels and cruise ships to lower their water usage through relatively inexpensive measures: hiring professionals who do water audits, installing more efficient fixtures, collecting rainwater, landscaping with less thirsty plants, and so on.

Energy Problems—and Solutions
Speaking of utility bills, speakers on a panel about energy costs pointed out that 92 percent of the electric power in the islands is generated by fossil fuels, and 90 percent of those fossil fuels are imported. The result? The Caribbean has maybe the highest per capita energy costs on earth. That’s neither sustainable nor, in the long run, competitive. John Marcocchio of the Caribbean Clean Energy Program (CARCEP) told about a hotel that used solar panels and so was able to return to normal operations faster than hotels that had to wait months for the grid to be restored.

On a larger scale, the island of Eustatia, which uses solar power to generate electricity, retained its power when it was hit by one of the fall’s hurricanes. So no, this small island’s use of alternative energy did not change the planet’s weather patterns, but its resilience reminded me of a comment by CTO secretary general Hugh Riley: “Renewable energy is imperative if we are to maintain our profitability and attractiveness.”

To that end, Arno Boersma, manager of the Aruba Centre of Excellence, described how Bucuti & Tara Resort reduces guests’ bills if they join its green program (i.e. agree not to have fresh towels every day, etc.). That win-win deal pleases Boersma, who looks for and promotes “the practical level of sustainability.”

Solar panels in Eustatia helped the island recover much faster than other Caribbean destinations post-hurricane season. (Photo credit: Aurel Kenessey)
Solar panels in Eustatia helped the island recover much faster than other Caribbean destinations post-hurricane season. (Photo credit: Aurel Kenessey)

Reefs, Surveys, and Salmon
Many of the presentations strayed pretty far from the issue of climate. Buddah Jezu-Maria, marketing and communications executive for TravelLife, a sustainability certification system for hotels, reminded attendees that “today’s consumers want more authentic holidays, so that has increased the demand for sustainable accommodations.” She referenced a survey by Tripability that found “71 percent of customers will make decisions based upon sustainability.” I generally question such high numbers, but other speakers cited other surveys whose findings, if not as high as 71 percent, still point toward sustainability as a major factor in travelers’ decisions.

“Tourists ask, Where’s that fish from?” said Geoff Bolan, CEO of Sustainable Travel International. Many, if not most visitors to the Caribbean want to have some Caribbean experiences, he said, and food is a big part of that. Grieux, discussing “tourism resilience through adaptation and mitigation,” stated that “one of the goals of sustainability is to increase the health of the reef.” The idea is to sustain both fisheries and the tourist industry (by attracting snorkelers, divers, boats, and recreational anglers). Another speaker said that 44 percent of visitors to her island explored the marine environment, and that’s not counting mere swimmers. Then Bolan mentioned a survey of visitors to Belize: It showed that if the reefs were damaged, 50 percent of the tourists would not come back. As I write this, Belize has just taken measures to better sustain its reef.

Other speakers related sustainability to culture, historical buildings, terrestrial environments (e.g. forests), and other issues, as well as energy and water. During a coffee break I asked Bolan how these things relate to retail travel agents. “You have to call people’s attention to what’s unique in a destination, because travel agents are looking to be unique as well,” he said. “Today, ‘I’ve got a good price’ just isn’t good enough.”