Tourism has had both positive and negative effects on the Caribbean. (Photo: Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images )
Tourism is vital to the entire Caribbean region, contributing an estimated 14 percent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product in 2013. A survey undertaken by the Oxford Economic organization in 2010 found that tourism played a larger role in the Caribbean economy than it did in any of the world’s other equivalent areas. Yet the majority of this income – perhaps as high as 80 cents in every dollar – “leaks out” of the Caribbean.
The tourism industry is a major employer throughout the region, directly supporting nearly 700,000 jobs and another 2.2 million indirectly in 2011. However, many of these jobs are seasonal and very low-paid, while the money generated by internationally funded projects fails to reach locals. In fact, only 15 percent of the Chinese-funded Baha Mar construction project in the Bahamas found its way to local laborers. On many islands, a racial divide appears to exist, on the one hand, between the owners of tourist facilities, and, on the other hand, the workers at the tourist establishments, according to former Caribbean ambassador Sir Ronald Sanders.
Tourism could have a tremendous beneficial impact on local economies, but many hotels source their food and cleaning products from abroad rather than purchasing them from local producers. An Oxfam study found that hotels in St. Lucia imported more than 70 percent of their produce every year. Local farmers cannot compete internationally and have suffered from a decline in the banana trade, but Oxfam and other organizations are encouraging hotels to source food from local farmers, and by doing so keeping the tourist income within the community and supporting farmer’s efforts to diversify their crops. For some hotels and restaurants, shopping locally adds a more authentic flavor to the products that they offer tourism and is a selling point in itself. For example, the Ocean Terrace Inn in St. Kitts prides itself on serving food made using locally sourced ingredients.
Tourism makes huge demands on the Caribbean’s water resources that is used for drinking, cooking, washing, swimming pools and air conditioning, reducing the volume of water available to local people. One study found that the average guest in Jamaica uses between 645 and 2,086 liters per night, compared with between 95 and 729 liters per guest per night in the United Kingdom. Several hotels have implemented programs to reduce their water use and make it more efficient. Installing gravity-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads can reduce the amount of water used by guests.
Tourism can be harmful to the environment in a variety of ways. Cruise ships sailing through the Caribbean dump waste into the sea; one study found that a ship carrying 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew generated the same amount of waste as a small city. This waste, including oil residues, harms marine ecosystems, including coral reefs. Groups such as the Caribbean Tourism Organization are promoting more sustainable tourism projects that attempt to reduce the impact of tourism on the local environment, while the United Nations’ Caribbean Environment Program supports this effort with the Cartagena Convention. The Convention aims to protect the Caribbean’s delicate marine environment by establishing a series of protocols on combating oil spills, creating protected areas and dealing with pollution from the land.
Though tourism has its negative impacts on the Caribbean’s natural environment, there are ways to tour the region in an eco-friendly manner while still contributing to the area’s economy. Take reusable water bottles and shopping bags with you, for example, and pack environmentally friendly soaps and shampoos to help reduce your footprint. Ask hotels what they do to help protect their surrounding environment, and ask tour providers what their hiring practices are to ensure they employ locals and help put money back into the local economy.
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