Ambassador Elizabeth Thompson delivers keynote address at CTO Sustainable Tourism Conference
It is wonderful to be in the Caribbean, in the beautiful country of St Vincent and the Grenadines, amongst brothers and sisters who are responsible for the leadership and management of our region’s premier foreign exchange earner. I thank the CTO for its kind invitation which is affording me the honour and pleasure of joining you to cogitate and cerebrate on issues facing the tourism sector in the context of sustainability.
I must confess that I am particularly pleased to be at the YIR ….. triple cruelty – older, heavier, leaving. Mac home.
That said, I am impressed at the persistence and resilience of CTO and those who made it here. Reluctantly, I am beginning to wonder if I am the problem, as the last time CTO invited me to deliver a keynote, that conference also had to be postponed because of Maria, who visited our region without an invitation or paying for her accommodation and wreaked havoc on every shore on which she landed.
Moreover, it was my honour to be present in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations to witness the crowning achievement of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, the distinguished and knighted Foreign Minister and this nation’s supremely competent UN Ambassador, on the day that St Vincent was overwhelmingly voted by almost every country in the world to be the smallest nation ever to sit on the UN’s august Security Council. I congratulate the Government and all Vincentians warmly. We need to stand proud as a Caribbean people.
I pledge my support to SVG, to the strengthening of the regional bonds of brotherhood, common purpose and a future shared by those who are captivated by the azure of the waters of the Caribbean Sea which washes our shores, who know the beauty and the crunch of golden sand between bare toes on a moonlit evening, yet understand the social, economic and environmental struggles of the peoples of these coral and volcanic rocks and who call them “home”, certain that we in the Caribbean live in one of the most beautiful and blessed parts of the world and most important, we reiterate our commitment to acting on the responsibility to ensure our region’s socioeconomic and ecological survival and its sustainability.
In sounding this note of history, let me take as my point of departure for my comments today, a historical anecdote of my own, using the style from the still popular TV reruns of Golden Girls – “Picture this, it’s the early 2000s. I am Minister of Environment Physical Development and Planning of Barbados. Rt Hon Owen Arthur is Prime Minister. We are at a meeting of the Planning and Priorities Committee which involves all ministries, senior technocrats and government officials who review the planning, prioritisation capitalization and progress of our country’s physical development projects. At this meeting, I am arguing against the hard stand that a hotel wants to put on a beach since I have been advised by technical experts that while accretion and a wonderful beach will result at the proposed location of the capital works, if permitted, the structures will result in beach loss elsewhere and severely impact a site for turtle nesting.
I made my arguments as cogent and as strong as I could. The hotel’s CEO looked at me with some bemusement and indeed with substantial amusement and then he uttered these words, “Prime Minister, I am proposing to build a beach at this hotel in order to help you create jobs for people. The honourable minister, is trying to save turtles for the ocean. He said it in a way that made me sound anything but honourable and in fact, silly. The room, including the Prime Minister, erupted in laughter. I sat there stone-faced and stoic. I am pleased to say that in the end Prime Minister Arthur took my point and accepted the advice of the experts of Barbados’ Coastal Zone Management Unit and the Chief Town Planner and rejected the large scale works the hotel’s CEO was proposing.
If this were a story, we could now say “and they all lived happily ever after” but the sad reality is that the end of stories such as this, is not always happy. For far too often, in pursuit of increased tourism arrivals and receipts, sound technical advice is cast aside, ignored and in many cases never sought at all.
The example I gave raises a number of relevant questions:
When a hotel seeks to destroy and build on the last remaining mangrove area or a special ecosystem is the development denied or allowed?
When new tourism villas will cut off the access of local communities to a popular beach, who is given precedence?
When security guards at hotel properties prevent nationals from even walking the beach, who is really the owner and the beneficiary of the product and the country?
When fishermen complain that the disposal practices of hotels and their discharges into the marine environment are ruining fish stocks at a traditional fishing site, who listens?
Who in our governments and tourism sectors make the determination of pursuing short term gain over long term sustainability?
Do we truly appreciate the link between climate resilience, profitability in the tourism sector and sustainability?
Do we even have a vision of sustainability for our countries and tourism sectors?
Is sustainability a buzzword, or is it the coagulant infusing our strategic planning and operation in the tourism sector and at the broader national level?
Do we truly appreciate that we cannot degrade and destroy the very environment on which our tourism arrivals and revenues are being generated?
Are sustainability and the creation of decent work and wider benefits for nationals incompatible?
Do our national and tourism planners eschew short term gain in favour of long-term benefit and sustainable development?
How do we prevent the race to the bottom that we think competition naturally engenders?
How do we move tourism from being numbers and arrivals driven to being value driven, with that value including high yields in terms of spend and direct, not peripheral, benefits for our citizens and communities?
These questions help to set your conference theme in context for me because it struck me that the theme forces us to ask some pertinent questions, among them:
“What is the type, nature and pace of the diversification which is taking place?”
“In so far as diversification represents change, is the Caribbean coping with and adapting to a period of change in the tourism sector and the world generally, in which economic, social, environmental, and political megatrends are impacting the industry, some more profoundly than others.”
Is the diversification helping us to achieve satisfactory answers to the questions I posed at the start?
The World Travel and Tourism Council points to five global megatrends which are impacting tourism, which I find quite interesting.
Power: distributed (politically from West to East).
Please let me now attempt to fit these megatrends into the parameters of the Caribbean tourism product and practice.
Consumption Reimagined – scientists tell us that we are living in the era of the Anthropocene in which our actions and choices can inalterably impact the planet’s natural environment and climate. Consequentially, across the globe, there is a push to “go green,” to reduce our carbon footprint, by adjust our consumption patterns and lifestyles. This has consequences for travel – shorter trips, trips in one’s home region or closer to home, travel that can be done by transport that does not use fossil fuels, taxes to offset carbon emissions, and has given rise to a more environmentally sensitive visitor who is interested in the sustainability practices of a hotel or a destination.
What does this mean for the Caribbean tourism product, its price, accessibility and sustainability, in a region where environmental considerations do not underpin hotel operations, are not seen as a source of cost containment, nor as a powerful attractant for visitors? This thinking is at the core of the Caring Economy, the idea that living sustainably is profitable, good for the planet and for those who live on it. At hotels across the world, faucets routinely have sensors, solar is used, room lights are activated by sensors in a key slot after entry and guests are invited to reuse towels and linens. One could add to this the increasing importance of what is referred to as the Fourth Sector which combines market-based approaches of the private sector with the social and environmental aims of the public and non-profit sectors, put another way, creating just and equitable outcomes for countries, companies, citizens and ecosystems; people, planet, profit.
The notion of a caring economy, one in which our social, economic environmental public policy are so aligned that state goods and services are targeted toward the improvement of the lives of all citizens who in turn focus on production and the protection of the national patrimony in the natural and built heritage and assets, is the core of the hope and practice of sustainability and must be reflected in our tourism product. Social and environmental benefits are compatible with, not antithetical to business interests. With some creativity and collaboration, the two can coexist in the forging of a value-added tourism product and economy.
Is the Caribbean tourism sector pursuing sustainability by harnessing the principles of the Caring Economy in generating profits for companies, development for citizens and preservation and protection for the ecosystems which make up a country?
Power Distributed – we in the Caribbean, as in the rest of the world, are witnessing geopolitical shifts. Friends from the West are not behaving as we have been accustomed. The East, particularly China now has a development bank which is better capitalised than the World Bank, traditionally funded by the West. Strong diplomatic demarchés by leftist leaning countries and China as a pivotal financier of development projects in our region, together with shrinking ODA and FDI, as mentioned earlier, and strident new nationalist and anti-globalisation sentiments in important parts of the West, are in some respects reshaping regional relationships with development partners and the wider global geopolitical landscape.
What does this mean for the sustainability of how we market, to whom we market and who constitutes our market?
Data Revolutionized – Both data and technology are redefining the tourism business. Into the word data, I am going to interpose the word technology, which is restructuring jobs and the job market. The first to be impacted were travel agents. Then check in agents. Then immigration agents. The availability of data on sites such as Yelp and social media platforms serves to point the tourist toward one destination over another and inform visitor choices. How are tourism agencies navigating this new space? We can fully expect further and radical industry changes from technology, automation and artificial intelligence. Some of the changes have already started.
What is the level of preparedness of the region in seeing and seizing the new opportunities and preparing for the changes ahead?
There is another sense in which data has been a constant concern for me, the fact that the definition of success in tourism is numbers driven, not value driven. At the base of our marketing effort is an increase in tourism arrivals. It appears to me, as a non-tourism specialist, that counting arrivals takes precedence over counting and increasing per capita visitor spend. Caribbean countries are small, fragile ecosystems. We are for the most part, extremely water scarce or water stressed. There is a limit to the number of bodies and foot falls that we can have at a beach, in a cave, at a waterfall or at an attraction on any single day, before the pressure on that ecosystem becomes unsustainable.
In some instances, overtourism and ecosystem fatigue are evident at some locations and in some countries. For some considerable time and indeed at a keynote I delivered at a CTO conference about three years ago, I have been raising this issue of the carrying capacity of the ecosystems, infrastructures and services of the islands, including the generation and disposal of waste. How do we price our product against the reality, not of increasing the numbers, but respecting the carrying capacity of the islands, while trying to increase visitor spend? Carrying capacity and sustainability are by very definition, closely linked. It is toward this objective that we should be collecting and collating data for planning purposes.
Some of you have heard me on this point already. Farmville in which people all over the world planted make believe flowers, tended imaginary crops, and paid for the pleasure of doing so, generated billions of dollars annually with the average player being 45 years old. Why are we not pursuing a Caribbean game, or online competition based on our natural environment, festivals, heritage and important sites, as part of the extension of the cachet and exotica of the tourism products of the islands and therefore lead to a new product capable of augmenting that which exists and which is arguably quite sustainable?
Life Restructured – The thrust for ethically sourced and wholesome goods and services, combined with wellness and life balance, make the Caribbean more saleable as a destination for medical marijuana, rehabilitative, cosmetic, therapeutic, palliative care and as a retirement and ecotourism/outback destination. This potential is not yet sufficiently maximized. I have already spoken to a principal phenomenon under this subhead, that of the Caring Economy. A second element, the emergence of the Sharing Economy goes right to the heart of the Caribbean’s tourism model and bears the promise of being transformational.
On the issue of the beneficiaries of tourism, another megatrend in the global economy is presenting a very real opportunity to grow the stake of nationals in the tourism sector. Tourists desire for more authentic, immersive self-directed experiences, combined with the growth in the sharing economy, has resulted in more robust demand for AirBnB and local housing as accommodation for tourists seeking to move away from the usual hotel package. Cookshops offering indigenous cuisine, local fishermen who want to give lessons to tourists, small property owners, mixologists seeking to titillate the taste buds and local chefs can now get a portion of tourism revenues without having to depend on the hotel-benefactor. Even more important is that this new trend will result in more money staying in the country, spread amongst more people than when the hotel is prepaid outside of the country even before the tourist sets foot on any of our islands.
I’m not here referring to a kind of trickle down, hap hazard benefit, but one in which our tourism product is based on national culture and conducted and pursued in national communities. The fish fry at Oistins in Barbados, and the offerings at Gros Islet in St Lucia are but examples of community-based tourism activities that are as enjoyable as they are beneficial. Where such initiatives are not emerging quickly or spontaneously, let me point to the fact that Alan Greenspan, the Former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve reminds us in his 2007 book, The Age of Turbulence, that such deliberate engineering is the role and responsibility of government.
People are more inclined to play their part, contribute and ensure the success of that in which they are given a stake, not that from which they are socially and economically alienated. Can we so restructure our tourism product to enlarge the base of the national beneficiaries?
Reality Enhanced – Evidence shows that for their leisure, today’s tourists, especially millennials and Generation Xers, crave and pursue the personalized services and experiences and the kinds of unique immersion experiences that create special memories. To what extent have regional tourism specialists sought to fully exploit this new level of consumer demand? Our culture is our reality and we must make it profitable.
In my view, that “special memory” with which the tourist should return home is a love of Caribbean culture, from food to music. It is not enough to have a musician earn at festivals time or a few big shows a year, we have to create the environment for our artists to earn, they too must become more entrepreneurial. Further, we are not sufficiently making the link to what we feed tourists. Hotels and restaurants must serve more local foods, fruits and juices. Not only will this reduce our import bill and foreign exchange outflows, but create new revenue streams and markets. A visitor can eat a profiterole or a pancake anywhere in the world, but he cannot get a bake or guava cheese. It is only in our region that he can enjoy the perfect slice of sweet bread with the soft sugared coconut in the centre.
In that regard, there are some virtuous cycles on which we must close the loops. It is in moving from primary to tertiary products which will increase visitor spend. We catch fish and throw away a lot of what we call waste that could be used for the production of fish fingers, fish burgers, fish nuggets, smoked fish, TV fish dinners augmented by Caribbean flavours such as passion fruit mango and coconut. Fish skins make beautiful leathers for which there is a market. Fish meal is a staple in pet foods. Sargassum is a resource which can be used an ingredient in animal feed and high-end makeup and skin care products.
Every tourist, from having tasted them at hotels and restaurants, should be leaving the islands with a range of bottled sauces, preserves, and goodies. And in a world where every next person is gluten intolerant, why are we not producing and exporting cassava and breadfruit and coconut flours? SVG used to produce an excellent smoked mahi mahi. This is one way of extending and improving on the visitor experience and spend. Our cuisine and culture must not be seen in as separate and distinct from the tourism product but integral to providing a unique immersive and memorable experience for the visitor.
Are we there yet?
Getting the tourists to our destinations is only part of the equation. Are we placing social, economic and cultural resonance at the core of the tourism marketing plans and ultimately our sustainability and success?
Just as this conference intends to do, I have touched on a number of themes.
We are proceeding on the premise that there will always be a Caribbean tourism product, but may I remind you that “for everything there is a season and a time.” Banana and sugar exports had their time and season. There was a period when our forefathers could not have imagined our economies without these agricultural goods. Let us learn from their experience and seek to develop tourism products that are truly sustainable and are more community and culturally oriented.
There are many more themes I would have wished to explore, but I fear I have trespassed too long on your time and before MOC and umpire raises the finger, I will start to walk.
I am much obliged to you for your time, kind attention and patience.