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Working Towards Sustainable Coastal Tourism

It is a little hard to admit that I was sitting on a plane when I wrote this.  I was flying home from a symposium in Grenada that was cosponsored by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), the Grenada Hotel and Tourism Association, and the Grenada Tourism Authority, with support...

Photo by Lee Coursey

It is a little hard to admit that I was sitting on a plane when I wrote this.  I was flying home from a symposium in Grenada that was cosponsored by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), the Grenada Hotel and Tourism Association, and the Grenada Tourism Authority, with support from an array of other sponsors.  Some 150 local, regional, and national delegates gathered at St. George’s University for the 3rd Symposium for Innovators in Coastal Tourism.  The Symposium was based on the notion that as the world’s largest and fastest growing sector, sun-sand-and-sea tourism poses both challenges and opportunities to those committed to socially and environmentally responsible travel.  Further, a majority of travelers would prefer to know that their destinations, especially their hotel and tourism hosts, are committed to sustainable practices—so the growing movement makes sense economically as well.

We gathered to meet with those on the cutting edge of innovative coastal tourism and to share their accomplishments, their lessons learned, and the key obstacles in implementing sustainable practices. The participants in this Symposium included hoteliers and other business leaders committed to, or considering new “green” models of coastal tourism, as well as tourism experts from international development organizations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, media and public relations, community-based organizations and academia.

We also heard from and met tourism and other officials from Grenada, which is made up of multiple islands, including Grenada, Carriacou and Petit Martinique.  Grenada has long been known as the spice island nation of the Caribbean with good reason.  Here in the near tropics, tempered by the northeast trade winds, the island produces cacao, nutmeg, and other spices for export.  More recently Grenada has chosen a new frame for its tourism—Pure Grenada: The Spice of the Caribbean, celebrating its diverse natural resources, especially the marine systems that draw divers, snorkelers, sailors, fishermen, surfers, and beach goers.

This marked the third time that I been a speaker at this Symposium on behalf of the work we do at The Ocean Foundation to foster sustainable tourism, to promote improved practices, and to protect critical areas before they are slated or prepared for development.  And, it was to learn more that I decided to spend an extra day touring the island of Grenada itself.  Just 110,000 people live on the islands of Grenada, and they receive about that many overnight visitors each year.  They also receive about 350,000 day visitors from cruise ships each year.  The island’s history is long and rich—first discovered by Europeans when Christopher Columbus arrive in the late 1490’s, it was first colonized by the French in the 1690’s, following pitched battles with the indigenous Arawak peoples.  The British took charge a century or so later, and the islands changed hands multiple times before finally gaining independence in 1974.  By 2004, the island had established itself as the world’s second largest exporter of nutmeg, and significant producer of cinnamon, cacao, mace, and other spices.

Diving and snorkeling on the reefs of all three Grenadan islands have long attracted visitors. British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor created the world’s first underwater sculpture garden in Dragon Cove in 2006 (now listed as one of the Top 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic) —with the goal of both establishing an artificial reef and a dive destination.

Grenada’s many uninhabited islands and protected coves have made it a favorite destination for sailors as well.  Small hotels remain the norm, and the long beaches, such as Grand Anse near the capital, attract visitors as well.  When Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004, it had a devastating impact on the islands, especially the southern and eastern parts—and a corollary effect on its ocean resources.  Thousands of people lost their houses and many more became roofless —and the damage to the economy was nearly unfathomable—200% of the nation’s GDP in damages, 83% of the nutmeg trees were gone, and incalculable harm to the nearby reefs and marine ecosystems from both runoff and debris.

Aid poured in from all kinds of sources.  The Chinese government rebuilt the cricket stadium in time for Grenada to play host to the championship as pledged—bringing critical dollars into the country.  American foundations, for example, helped pay for the replanting of nutmeg trees as one investment.  Inevitably, the government had to borrow to rebuild critical road and utility infrastructure.  And, thus, there arose an incredible amount of pressure on the government to accept any kind of development that helped repay the debt incurred for rebuilding.  Funds for enforcing protected areas or overseeing development so that critical mangrove and other shoreline resources were protected declined.

Each of the four hotels that hosted delegates to the conference has specific practices that are designed to improve the hotel’s relationship with its surroundings that include using solar panels to heat water, sourcing food locally, making every effort to reduce both water and energy use, and limiting the use of the high efficiency air conditioning to private bedrooms and baths.  There seemed to be no loss of creature comforts due to these investments—the hotels were delightful, as were the open air meals under canvas awnings with ceiling fans augmenting the summer breezes.  Sadly, I learned that across the Caribbean, it is understood that the more Americans that are staying in a hotel, the higher the energy and water consumption.  As a group, we demand colder rooms and longer, hotter showers than our counterparts from other countries, even on an island with finite resources.  We also demand air-conditioned lobbies and hallways instead of the open air spaces that are more common where we visit less.

Photo by Mark J. Spalding
Photo by Mark J. Spalding

I also learned that the investment in system efficiencies and other cost-saving strategies sometimes has to take a back seat to other demands to expand visitor services, upgrade the kitchen, or replace equipment.  The goal is to figure out how to capitalize the improvements—solar and wind power, for example—in ways that help both the hotels and the national bottom line.  The good news is that people are doing just that.  From Caribbean Hotel Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Agency (CHENACT) to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), to multi-lateral agencies and entrepreneurs, it is clear that energy independence is a critical element of resilience for most Caribbean nations.  Reliance on diesel generation is just not sustainable—monetarily or even logistically.

The Grenada Tourism Authority’s Christine Noel-Horsford had the final word from the floor:  Here are the simple points that I took away from the conference which I believe would make a difference in my life going forward:

1.  Going Green is urgent

2.  When communicating your GREEN STORY, keep it simple

3.  Remember that you cannot go GREEN alone

4.  But, the only GREEN strategy that works is when you do it yourself

5.  You have to lead the Charge

6.  Don’t SELL Me the Green Story, involve me

7. Sustainability is a JOURNEY

We can all agree that Ms. Noel-Horsford’s seven points are a reminder to us all that we need to each do our part on behalf of the ocean—from our purchasing power to our habits to our investment in ocean causes to our ability to engage others in the effort.

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Meet the Author

Mark Spalding
Mark J. Spalding, President, The Ocean Foundation, is a member of the Steering Committee of the Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Initiative. Mark is an active participant in the marine working group, Ocean Acidification collaborative, Baja California group, and coral reef group of the funders' organization, the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity. He serves on the International Bering Sea Forum, and he was the chair of the Council of the National Whale Conservation Fund. He has consulted for the Alaska Conservation Foundation, San Diego Foundation, the International Community Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Fundacion La Puerta, and a number of family foundations. He designed and managed the Orca Fund. He has served as a member of the Environmental Grants Advisory Committee of FINCOMUN (Tijuana’s Community Foundation). Mark, who has been practicing law and acting as a policy consultant for 25 years, was the chair of the environmental law section of the California State Bar Association from 1998-1999. He holds a B.A. in history with Honors from Claremont McKenna College, a J.D. from Loyola Law School, and a Master in Pacific International Affairs (MPIA) from IR/PS. From 1994 to 2003 Mark was the Director of the Environmental Law and Civil Society Program, and Editor of the Journal of Environment and Development, at the Graduate School of International Relations & Pacific Studies (IR/PS), University of California at San Diego. In addition to lecturing at IR/PS, Mark has taught at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD's Muir College, UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, and University of San Diego's School of Law. Mark has helped design some of the most significant ocean conservation campaigns in recent years. He is an experienced and successful facilitator at the international level. He brings his extensive experience with the legal and policy aspects of ocean conservation to the Foundation's grantmaking strategy and evaluation process.